That's Debatable: It's the End of College as We Know It

Kevin Carey and Michael Crow want you to know that higher education in America is broken.

It’s a model obsessed with status at the expense of outcomes, they explain. 

A system perpetuating privilege where 79 percent of students coming from families in the top income quartile graduate from four-year universities, but only 11 percent of students from the bottom quartile do the same.

It’s a system burdening a generation where student debt has tripled over the past eight years and college costs continue to rise.  

On that much they agree.  They can even agree that this model favors faculty – particularly research professors and administrative staff – over students.  And, perhaps most significantly, they agree that technology can drive the disruptive change that higher education desperately needs.

But this was, after all, a debate.  And what college could, and should, look like after this digital disruption is where Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, and Crow, the president of Arizona State University, diverge.  The two squared off at New America’s annual conference as part of our That’s Debatable series about the next generation of college classrooms.

For his part, Carey is somewhat of a MOOC evangelist.  He has openly preached about power of MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courses, before (notably here and here). He’s even taken a class himself, M.I.T.’s freshman biology course, through a start-up called edX.

“Until 2012, the only way to get that experience was to be one of the very smartest 17-year-olds in America… to win a very high-stakes tournament, to move to Cambridge, Mass., to pay M.I.T $50,000 and to show up in a building twice a week. Only 300 people could do that,” he said.   

This year, he continued, there are tens of thousands of people who have signed up to take the same class—with access to the same lectures, the same problem sets, and even the same exams as M.I.T.’s freshman class--on the web via edX. Carey said it took less than a minute to sign up, and cost him nothing (but, perhaps, frustration while completing difficult problem sets).

Although MOOCs are still relatively new—universities are still working out how, and if, they want to award academic credit for those who pass the MOOC versions of their courses—Carey emphasized that they hold the promise of revolutionizing not just opportunity in higher education, but economics.

The momentum is already there, he explained.  Elite universities who have started offering MOOCs such as M.I.T., Harvard, and Stanford are bringing new credibility to the movement—a major turning point, he said, after a decade where poor-quality, for-profit schools had tarnished the reputation of web-based learning.

As to the obvious question with MOOCs, whether online education is really equivalent to classroom education experience, Carey said that people shouldn’t make the assumption that in-person experiences are always better, pointing to a a recent study that showed students taking a college-level statistics class with traditional classroom instruction performed no better than their peers who took a hybrid online and in-person version of the course. What’s more, the study showed that the results held across income categories.

The kind of research, he explained, has opened up the question of how much people actually matter in education, and in what context and at what cost they are adding value.

“Don’t assume that everyone who is out there needs to be there, that we need to pay them…people is what we pay for in higher ed, so the only question is if 50 percent costs us nothing, when do people provide value?” he said.

Carey said he doesn’t think that all of this means that the future of college is going to be people learning from MOOCs in their parents’ basements (he said he thinks people will create “authentic” learning communities, which will probably include some kind of residential life, social life, and education resources). 

But for many people of the next generation, it will probably mean the end of the traditional campus as we know it. Carey suggested that the university model, which he points out hasn’t changed much in the past 130 years (save for the costs), is due for an overhaul.

 “I think we’re at the point where the conversation is flipped upside down, “and, he said, the burden of proof is now on the humans, not the technology, to show results. .

The question going forward, Carey argued, “What do we get when we add people to the increasingly rich technology-based education that is growing and growing and growing.”

Unlike Carey, Michael Crow is not ready to throw the whole concept of a university out. 

He conceded that most universities are rigid structures, unable to think of their own adaptability and unwilling to move away from their faculty-centric traditions. Which is why he has been promoting his own ASU as a model for how colleges can be saved, but not replaced, by technology.

“[Technology] is not an ‘in lieu of’ tool, it is an augmentation tool.  It is a way to enhance, but not replace, the learning experience,” he said.

For example, he said, new tools such as online education can extend the reach of educators by moving some of the basic course materials online, which gives faculty more time and energy to engage students in the more analytical and critical thinking experiences.  These technologies can also be a powerful tool for measuring individual outcomes that provide feedback to both students and faculty to better tailor the learning experience.

This model, he explained, creates an environment that dramatically reduces financial barriers to entrance by offering education at the lowest possible cost, but that still produces students capable of learning everything a university degree should offer them.

Crow rattled off just some of ASU’s accomplishments using this formula: Whereas state schools such as the University of Minnesota have faculty to student ratios as high as 36 to 100—and the average four-year school has a ratio of 16 to 100—ASU has just 12 faculty members for every 100 students.   The school has been able to keep costs down to the point where it is one of the few schools in the country that has a student body that reflects the socioeconomic makeup of its state.  And, even with all of these measures, it tied at fifth place in the nation alongside Yale and the University of California, Berkeley for the number of Fulbright Scholars it produced last year.

“We can do this with a few people and a lot of machines, but there is still this thing about a student being able to sit with a person who is a scholar, not just watch them on a screen, but engage with them,” he said.

MOOCs can be a powerful tool if they are supplemented with real interaction with educators, he said.   He warned against some of the MOOC pioneers who are “talking like they are Jesus” and see MOOCs as the great equalizer that will save higher education. He sees a potential future where politicians, eager to cut costs, will gut the budgets of state schools and replace classroom learning with MOOCs.  Elite schools, meanwhile, will continue to selectively develop MOOCs through corporate partnerships but, he said, you won’t see them giving credit to just anyone who passes their course.

“The problem that I have with an overgeneralization of this lightning bolt technology, the ability to project great minds, is that we will find ourselves on a trajectory where the rich get face-to-face with professors and everyone else will be taught by some type of robot…the [class] separation will grow deeper,” he said.

Carey chimed in, however, and countered that in terms of egalitarianism, online learning can still do more good than harm. The higher education system that we are starting from now is already “radically unfair,” he said, so we aren’t exactly starting from square one.

The real problem is that universities have historically been too slow to change, Carey said, and even those that have tried have been sucked back into the system.  He said he thinks that higher education needs a real disruptive incentive, which innovative and well-designed MOOCs will provide, for the system to truly begin to address its problems

“The question is not whether Arizona State is fantastic,” he said, “but that there are 500 universities out there—and how many Michael Crows are there?”