Insights from Akron Part 2

As I described in the last blog entry, there is an increasing availability of media, materials, and assessments that will allow motivated learners to essentially “test out” of high school. But as I spoke with teachers in Akron, it occurred to me that the same trend may be underway at the university level. There is new competition for the university dollar that may radically alter our post secondary education landscape.

A confluence of two factors will drive this alteration. First is the ready availability of online course material. I’m not talking here about the online universities that offer their courses for about the same price as a traditional university. In my experience many of these seem to simply be “diploma mills.” In fact, when I was a technology director for a suburban county in Northern Illinois, many of the well-to-do districts that I served would not accept salary schedule credit for teachers from these institutions. I’m talking instead about the good, free stuff.

The availability of good, free, online college course material actually began in 1999 in the nation that has really become a hotbed for educational innovation – Germany – while the U.S. stagnates under the myopic vision of No Child Left Behind. A university in Germany began publishing videos of lecture series and distributing them freely. (Read more about the open courseware movement in Wikipedia.)

In the U.S., the movement was launched by MIT through their OpenCourseWare initiative in which they now offer an astounding 2,100 courses available online. I had no idea that a university actually offered that many courses let alone for free! MIT has been joined by Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley and others in this initiative. A typical offering includes audio or video versions of all lectures in the course, some produced very professionally, and support materials including notes, quizzes, and sometimes the actual textbook!

Of course, the OpenCourseWare movement has been around for awhile, and most people are familiar with at least a couple of examples of these programs. This fall, however, there will be a new entry in the movement. It’s called edX and it will be huge. EdX, a product of MIT and Harvard, running in an online course platform developed at MIT, takes open courseware to a new level. An edX course will include “video lesson segments, embedded quizzes, immediate feedback, student-ranked questions and answers, online laboratories, and student paced learning.” In addition, the two universities will grant Certificates of Mastery to those successfully completing the courses. The only missing piece is real live college credit, but I don’t think that will be far behind. And that’s because of the second factor. Student debt.

Increasingly in our nation we have a crisis in student debt. According to the non-profit American Student Assistance, there are currently approximately 9,000,000 U.S. students in four-year colleges carrying an average of over $12,000 in debt. These students also have an average of 4.6 credit cards with a per student balance averaging over $3,000. In 2007-2008, prior to the economic bust, private lenders were already lending about $17 billion to students, a 592% increase from a decade earlier. Most experts believe that poor economic conditions and rising fees have likely accelerated this debt accumulation among students.

I think that there is an obvious and unfortunate outcome at hand. Students will be allowed to test out of undergraduate education the same way that they can currently test out of high school in Michigan, Ohio, and virtually anywhere through the AP process that Kevin used. (If you don’t understand that sentence, you need to read Part 1 of Insights from Akron!)  With resources like edX, and the open courseware movement maturing, we have the mechanisms to allow motivated students with few resources to complete the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree for free. All that’s missing is the credit. The mechanism for assessing understanding and completion is there. It’s in the edX course Certificate of Mastery, which is not unlike the AP test credit scheme.

This could easily lead to most students avoiding a traditional campus experience and to college becoming an online activity with the rather stilted, artificial collaboration and interaction that this entails. The death of many American universities could ensue. Is this something to be excited about? I don’t think so.

I believe that a college education is about more than content knowledge. The experiences of leaving home, building both personal and professional connections, and working collaboratively with others are important elements of the maturation process supported by college life. Not to mention, of course, the parties. It seems a shame that this may only be available to students of means. For others, they may need to settle for online collaboration, and a free education completed at a desk in their parents home.