The Columns

MOOCs' Contradictions

— by on September 11th, 2012

David Touve
Assistant Professor of Business Administration
(This essay first appeared in Inside Higher Education and is reprinted here with permission. )

In recent months, many of the most prominent research universities announced forays into free online courses. As a greater number of these universities go online with such free education platforms, the nature of the market for — and even the meaning of — a college degree could change in both subtle and significant ways.

Behind the screens, beyond the more collaborative desire to educate the world, a rather complex sort of competition may be playing out. Aside from the question of competition, however, is the question of what the classification of these online programs signals in terms of our beliefs about the purpose and value of a college degree, as well as the qualifications for such a degree.

On the one hand, universities or their partnered courseware platforms describe these MOOC experiences as analogous to classroom-based course experiences, in terms of either the academic rigor or at least the capacity to assess mastery of the course material. For example, edX describes the rigor of its online courses as the same as that of the partnering institutions. Coursera, citing a 2010 meta-analysis conducted by the Department of Education, claims that online learning is at least as effective as learning in face-to-face classroom settings.

On the other hand, those universities now experimenting with MOOC offerings are quick to clarify that they will grant course credit or college degrees only to those students who first pass through the highly selective admissions process, which occurs before these students ever register for a course — online or on-campus.

As a result, the nature of these recent experiments in massive and open online courses risks triggering a paradox in certain galaxies of the higher education universe: evidence of mastery in university coursework will warrant only a certificate, while evidence of mastery in work prior to university coursework will determine the degree. Simply stated, the line between an online certificate and a degree from any particular institution shall be drawn by the admissions office.

This paradox was expressed in point-blank terms by MIT’s news office, in December 2011, within the original FAQ for the MITx program:

“Credentials will be granted only to students who earn them by demonstrating mastery of the material…. MIT awards MIT degrees only to those admitted to MIT through a highly selective admissions process.”

Expressing, in mathematical terms, the degree-does-not-equal-certificate logic:

Course + Admissions Selection + Mastery = Degree.
Course – Admissions Selection + Mastery = Certificate.
“Course” and “Mastery” cancel each other out, and so:
(+) Admission Selection = Degree, while
(-) Admission Selection = Certificate

Perhaps as evidence of the danger presented by this paradox, the edX FAQ now makes no explicit reference to the qualifications — such as a lack of equivalence in subject mastery — that distinguish a degree from a certificate. Frankly, however, the resolution of this paradox cannot be resolved by simply not mentioning it.

Unfortunately, the engineered distinction between certificates and degrees mimics a much deeper and unsightly impression for which the market for these same prestigious universities is widely criticized: the inputs to education trump the outputs of education. We rank, and even respect, universities according to the relative metrics of standardized test scores and dollars spent on research (inputs) rather than measures of classroom experience or subject mastery (outputs).

As larger populations of students in the higher education universe complete increasing proportions of their coursework online, however, some resolution to the certificate versus degree paradox becomes unavoidable. The line that could previously be drawn between wholly online degree programs and wholly offline programs fades.

Furthermore, as larger populations of students complete increasing proportions of their coursework through the same, or extremely similar courseware platforms, our ability to ignore these MOOCs as the means to measure at least one dimension of the outputs of higher education fades as well. In other words, we will have to come to terms with the implications of our measures of mastery (e.g., when the only students who aced a Stanford University course in artificial intelligence were students who were not attending the university).

Just as our initial characterizations of the Internet as seemingly antisocial transitioned to an awareness that this online space was social in its own ways, so to might this distinction between online and offline education transition to a recognition that these two environments simply provide different venues for learning, each venue leading to certain subject mastery in its own ways.

Frankly, it’s time to resolve this paradox, and the sooner the better.

If a well-attended and open online course offered by a prominent university is somehow different from the associated on-campus education in terms of the level or type of mastery that can be achieved, then we should just say so and treat this difference as such. Subject mastery in a MOOC environment may be a necessary but not yet sufficient condition for “mastery,” at least in certain galaxies of higher education.

In fact, perhaps the mastery we are ultimately hoping for from the range of galaxies in the higher education universe is more than the ability to answer 50 questions correctly. Instead, our ultimate goal is to develop a capacity to convert the implications of those answers to new questions, new ideas, and new inventions — dynamic sources of impact. Developing and supporting this dynamic capacity may not scale in the same way that MOOC education can.

If, however, there is no difference between the level and type of mastery that can be reached online versus that which might be attained on campus, then we should speak and act as if these two venues are indeed equivalent — if not in experience then at least in terms of the outputs, regardless of inputs.

Most importantly, however, we should resolve the paradox that emerges from this debate over MOOCs, wherein the substance — whether chunks of matter or ideas or right answers or genuine insights — that determines whether a student earns a university degree rather than a course certificate would be in the selection of that student through admissions standards rather than in the content and quality of the education or the impact of that education as measured through the student’s experience, accomplishments, or dynamic capacity to act upon and even develop new knowledge.

David Touve is assistant professor of business administration at Washington and Lee University.