MOOCs and the Stratification of American Higher Education

Cross-posted from Big Think

So Peter Sacks, author of the
excellent Generation X Goes to College, explains what’s
really wrong with the likely MOOCification of higher education.

Studies show that learning through
MOOCS and related online delivery systems isn’t worse than that through the
more traditional or personal ways of teaching, at least according to allegedly
reliable quantitative measures.

That “assessment” is more
than enough to lead state schools and poorer private schools to embrace such
efficient and effective enough instructional technology. Students will
get the competencies and skills connected with degree completion at an
affordable price. There’s no particular reason why “for profit”
institutions–as long as they’re rigorously assessed–shouldn’t get involved in
this effort to get as many Americans as possible through college. American education so disrupted will have purged itself of educationally
irrelevant amenities, beginning with tenured faculty lounging about insulated
from the relevant standards of productivity.

Meanwhile, the richer and more
“elite” colleges won’t go in this techno-direction. They will
become progressively more personal, emphasizing student “engagement,”
more luxurious amenities from gourmet food to health-club gyms and edifying
internships and study-abroad options that could easily be mistaken for
vacations, and undergraduate research.  

The elite schools will get better
and better and the state schools will get more standardized and commodified,
more reliably mediocre. Actually, that’s an optimistic scenario. If
we check out secondary education, we can see that the elite high schools are
better than ever, while most high schools are pretty much warehouses for
teenagers. Those two kinds of high schools will pretty predictably feed those
two kinds of colleges. And nobody with eyes to see trusts assessment
rubrics to guarantee quality control.

So you still might say there’s nothing
to worry about here. Our elite colleges have pretty meritocratic
admissions policies, and they’re all about “diversity.” They
also have lots of financial aid. But we can also see that our colleges
are more stratified than ever when it comes to SAT and IQ. And we can
also see that our “cognitive elite” is separating itself more than
ever through choice of schools and all that from the rest of society. Those who have actually looked at the stats see that diversity at our
best colleges is increasingly smart and rich black and white kids being
educated together. Meanwhile, the class divide based on money, education,
and brains widens, and there’s no real incentive for our best colleges to care.

It’s tougher than ever for members
of our sinking middle class to be able to do what it takes to get into our best
colleges.  Meanwhile, we’re going to be about stripping our ordinary
colleges with open or semi-open admissions policy of personal features,
beginning with tenured faculty, to cut costs. That means our struggling
ordinary guys aren’t going to get the personal attention and possible
“transformative experiences” that have historically been available on
even our ordinary low-tech campuses. Those most in need of and often
deserving of personal encouragement are going to be those least likely to get

So Sacks is right that it should
offend our meritocratic sensibilities that our elite colleges are now, more
than ever, First Class.  And our MOOCified colleges might well be on their
way to becoming “steerage” or more and more distant from real higher


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