Some Random Thoughts on the Future of the University

Writing on the future of the university has long been a cottage industry. Predicting disruptive changes and revolutions to conservative institutions and industries requires little in the way of penetrating insight. A few friends asked what I thought about Nathan Harden’s recent article in the American Interest, and it being a holiday weekend, I decided to take some time to respond a length.

Harden’s article predicts that online MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and other digital open access education initiatives at the university level will be a disruptive and transformative approach to higher education.  He argues that these innovations lead by schools like Harvard and MIT have appeared at a crucial moment when universities have become expensive, financially vulnerable, top heavy with administrators, and enduring widespread critique for deviating from their traditional missions of producing good citizens, an educated workforce, and ethical society.

For Harden, the involvement of elite university’s in producing MOOCs and other open access initiatives leverages the best of American higher education, and, as good currency drives out bad, these offerings should either elevate offerings by their more modest brethren (small and midsize state universities and liberal arts colleges), drive them out of the higher education business, or force them to become a local tutor for elite offerings. For an industry that long prided itself on low student-teacher ratios, responsive instruction, and a wide range of campus services (from organized sports to libraries and dinning halls), the critiques offered introduces a new kind of Jeremiad where innovation disrupts the deeply flawed university system as we know it.

Harden seems to see the difficult financial conditions of many schools as indicative of the flawed model of American higher education. I have my doubts. First, some of the financial issues experienced by private universities comes not from pricing themselves out of the game, but because their endowments suffered during the global economic down turn. Next, state universities have suffered because funding priorities have changed. Dating to before the recent recession, state colleges and universities have received less and less money from the state governments while at the same time being restricted in how they can raise money to make up the funding gap (e.g. states often limit tuition increases, require the admission of instate students at a discounted price, and even restrict the amount and kinds of fees charged to students). Neither of these issues are directly related to the performance of the university system except that our society as a whole has become increasingly skeptical of our institution’s ability to contribute to the production of a economically and socially dynamic society. In other words, funding for higher education and the performance of higher education are separate issues and the lack of funding does not mean that the approach or performance of our universities is flawed.

(As an aside, the average amount of student loan debt – $23,000 per student – seems quite reasonable in that it is far less than, say, the average price of a car ($30,000 in 2012) and unlike a car one’s education tends to appreciate over time rather than lose value…)   

But to return to the disruptive potential of MOOCs and other open course initiatives, I’ll offer three observations: 

1. Trends. The dream of several massive online courses servicing massive numbers of students is an appealing one for anyone who sees the issues with U.S. higher education as our institutions have never adjusted to the rapid increase in the number of students who started going to college in the middle of the 20th century. As a result, we continue to use methods developed to teach a small number of economic and social elites to teach the masses. Massive online courses provide an antidote to this failure to adapt.

The problem is, of course, that similar efforts to scale higher education have not worked. Massive courses at massive universities drove down the cost of higher education by supplementing the ranks of the faculty members with legions of eager graduate students who mediated between the sage on the stage and the students. Over the last two decades, both students and faculty have rebelled against this model for teaching. Calls to “invert the lecture” and to create a more dynamic, interactive classroom have tended to feature more intensive faculty involvement rather than a more distant, highly mediated source of erudite authority. While online teaching can provide this kind of hands-on mentoring, it is difficult to image being able to do it on such a scale as the current MOOCs without significantly increasing the degree of faculty involvement or the number of faculty members involved. In short, MOOCs run counter to a century long trend in American higher education that calls for smaller class, more faculty involvement in teaching, and more hands-on, personalized instruction.  

2. Technologies of Scale. MOOC type classes will begin to lose some of their economies of scale if they come to provide a significant source of for credit instruction. I regularly teach an online class of 100 students and received 4-5 student questions about the technologies involved in this course per week. This is rather low-tech class and a relatively static interface. If I were teaching this class to 1000 students I might expect 40-50 questions a week and I see no reason why this trend wouldn’t continue as the course size increased. With MOOCs enrolling over 50,000 students one can imagine hundreds, if not thousands, of student related issues per week. While this is not an insurmountable problem, it will require an investment in course infrastructure to keep pace with not only the massive numbers of students enrolled, but the increased pressure of evaluating and managing the students in class. Economies of scale and new technologies might make MOOCs sustainable at a cost relatively lower than traditional university education, but I cannot imagine that they will continue to be free.   

We should remember that the current first generation of MOOCs do not seek to engage students in the same way or to the same extent as a classroom based course. The metrics for evaluating student performance remain crude in comparison with a typical university classroom, the active contact hours between faculty member and individual student are vanishingly small, and student expectations remain modest (or at least in keeping with the price of the courses!).  MOOC style course that have yet to introduce robust methods to manage elevated student expectations, increased contact hours, and more subtle standards of performance. These will cost money. 

3. Continuity. Finally, it is important to stress that much of what students encounter in MOOC style education is radically different from what they encounter in secondary education. While taking nothing away from the flexibility of the student mind, the change from a highly structured school environment to an à la carte system provided by MOOCs seems to be the kind of radical departure from how we teach students to learn. If we believe that our current teaching and learning methods are broken or unsustainable, then it is going to take more than just changing how we deliver information or construct knowledge on the university level.

Lest people see this post as the rantings of a luddite, I should point out that I proposed a series of MOOC style courses at the University of North Dakota over 2 years ago. It made its way though the university bureaucracy before dying in Deans’ Council. Since that time, I have thought about the potential of MOOCs and what they can offer to higher education. My general feeling at present is that MOOCs present very little threat to the typical university curriculum. They do, however, offer a significant threat to textbook publishers. Assigning a free MOOC as part of an established class (as universities are already doing) provides a more dynamic, personal, and inexpensive interface for the delivery of content than the traditional textbook.


  1. “First, some of the financial issues experienced by private universities comes not from pricing themselves out of the game, but because their endowments suffered during the global economic down turn. ”

    Isn’t this just another way of saying they priced themselves out of the game? American Universities public and private are heavily dependent on massive endowments. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but clearly many elite schools overextended based on a too optimistic—some would say reckless—expectation of the economy. No?


    1. Mike,

      Sure. But what I was trying to say was that the poor performance of their endowments was different from whatever liabilities they had educationally. Or, the “global financial downturn” caught everyone out – from pension funds to banks to universities – so it wasn’t as if something particular to higher education caused these financial issues.



  2. Nathan Harden’s article is pretty poor. Parenthetically, it seems a little strange to me that much of the discussion about MOOCs is framed in terms of a zero-sum game. Maybe that’s the best way to think about it, but it doesn’t seem self-evidently true to me.


  3. Having participated in a MOOC that enrolled more than 90,000 people worldwide, I was very impressed by the company’s ability to manage the execution of the coursework. I imagine that the instructor did not respond to or even receive any tech related questions as these were mostly likely submitted directly to the tech team so this may in fact be an advantage of this kind of offering. I’ll also note that I did not personally experience any technical issues.

    I was equally impressed by the instructor’s personal attention to specific concerns and topic questions that arose from week to week. In addition to providing the coursework, there were multiple threads in the forums to which he contributed comments or answered questions, supplemental video content, monitoring of several assessments (which were peer evaluated) and weekly email updates.

    And while it was not easy to see my 90K classmates, I got the sense that many of them were not freshmen but rather, individuals who just wanted to learn more about a topic that interested them, with no risk. As someone who works in higher education, I initially signed up for the course to learn more about a potential future competitor. (I have since signed up for two more courses.) I think we should be considering how to use people’s interest and toe-dipping experience to our advantage.

    We also need to be aware of how the discussions of granting completion certificates for courses may affect transfer credits in the future. It will happen whether traditional institutions are ready or not.


  4. Susie,

    To my mind, the issue of completion certificates and even credits is the rub. Peer evaluated work and participation by the instructor is one thing in a classroom where cultivating interest in a topic is a key outcome. It’s another thing in a classroom where a range of specific skills and abilities need to be developed and assessed. As the “assessocracy” has become more powerful in the modern university, standards for the successful execution of a particular curriculum become more bound up in complex and cumbersome bureaucratic measures. These measures add expense to courses and will challenge the ability of MOOCs to accomplish their goals in an efficient and inexpensive way.



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