Are in-person academic communities luxury goods?

Since I began posting as a guest on Concurring Opinions at the beginning of March, “MOOCs” – massively open online courses – have been repeated topic. The blog search engine reports that the term did not appear on the blog until 25 Feb 2013; in the six weeks since, MOOCs have been a topic herehereherehereherehere, and, in Deven Desai’s interesting post two days ago, here. Deven says, and I agree, that the aggregation of students together inside an immersive academic, learning community is a real good, and one that cannot be duplicated by a set of MOOCs. But the question MOOCs make pressing is how to value that good, once it can be unbundled from training in the classroom. Nannerl Keohane, in a recent review in Perspectives on Politics (11:1, March 2013, p.318), says that “online education … is the easiest and cheapest way to learn a variety of subjects, especially useful ones,” and describes it is the contemporary analogue of “mutual-aid societies and lyceums.” This seems apt.

University insiders like to say that even unbundled academic community is indispensable, and should be subsidized by both state and university. I suspect that the marketplace will put a much lower value on it. State legislators, ever strapped for cash, will likely do so as well. There will still be a market for 24/7, bricks-and-mortar academic communities; but the online availability of downmarket, imperfect, but genuine partial substitutes will mark such communities more clearly as luxury goods. Once such luxuries are no longer inexorably bundled with direct instruction, the argument that they still deserve state or even philanthropic subsidy is not, it seems to me, a slam-dunk.

Deven posted that the key question is how to “leverage MOOCs and other technology to improve the way education is delivered while not offering only the virtual world” but also social context to those not in the luxury-goods market. Another way of phrasing that question is to ask whether there is a mid-market good, somewhere between the aggregation of naked MOOCs and the bricks-and-mortar private college, that could command interest in the marketplace and justify third-party subsidies. What features of the “code” of online courses – the way that they are presented, taught, bundled together, and converted into credentials – might be adjusted to create a closer approximation of an immersive community, without sacrificing the advantages virtual teaching offers in terms of access over distance, asynchronicity, economies of scale, and cost?

You may also like...

2 Responses

  1. Ryan Calo says:

    During World War II, Japan stopped exporting silk to the United States. We needed silk for parachutes so the government reportedly banned silk stockings. This led to a fad in which women applied makeup to their legs, sometimes drawing a seam with eyeliner to create the appearance of stockings. The innovation was bottled as “leg makeup” and some people probably made a lot of money. Later, when supplies of silk returned, most women returned to ordinary stockings.

    Maybe MOOCs are leg make up—an innovative substitute brought on by the crisis of the day. We are not talking about a new technology here, after all, only a recombination, and the market failure will not necessarily prove permanent. If that’s right, then schools should invest just enough in MOOCs to make it through these hard, silkless years… not embark on a project to radically redefine the nature of higher education.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    Through its diction and the categories it employs, your post seems to undermine its own goals. The vocabulary is almost entirely from industrialized production: “aggregation” of students, “bundling” of community and instruction, speaking of community as a “good” (and not, e.g., as a service). Government support of education is described as a “third-party subsidy” intruding into the “marketplace” — rather than, say, as a duty of government with a long historical tradition. To say nothing of your acceptance of characterizing “community” as a “luxury,” motivating the search for a “mid-market good.” Although you seem to want to preserve the community aspects of university education — or at least an “approximation” of it — you’ve framed the issue in a way convenient to your opponents.

    At a minimum, the characterizing of education as a “good” rather than a “service” pulls in the inappropriate notion of productivity. There are some good arguments why productivity isn’t an appropriate notion for most services; e.g., economist Jean Gadrey, emeritus at the University of Lille and a member of the Stiglitz Commission formed by former French President Sarkozy, has written often on that point.

    In the meantime, a simple answer to your question about “a mid-market good, somewhere between the aggregation of naked MOOCs and the bricks-and-mortar private college, that could command interest in the marketplace and justify third-party subsidies” is government-subsidized brick-and-mortar *public* colleges and universities. A lot of the problem that both this post and MOOCs are trying to address has been caused by our taking it for granted that government should get out of this activity, especially because we can’t afford to subsidize it. In this context, another drawback of your economistic jargon becomes apparent: it obscures the very *political* connection between these pleas of government poverty on the one hand, and the trillions of dollars spent on, say, wars in the MIddle East. For those interested in the future of education, a better question to ask might be whether such wars are the luxuries we should be concerned about.