What the New York Times is Missing About Online Courses

An editorial in today’s New York Times demonstrates the kind of reasoning that, if left unchallenged, threatens to slow one of the most promising innovations in higher education. While belatedly acknowledging that the online revolution “offers intriguing opportunities for broadening access to education,” the editorial is mainly devoted to criticizing the courses on two grounds: first, that the attrition rate is high and, second, that these courses are ill-suited for struggling students who need more individual attention. Both criticisms miss the point of online courses.

High attrition rates in the massive open online courses (MOOCs) are actually a sign of success.  For instance, almost 155,000 people signed up for an early MITx course, “Circuits and Electronics.” Of those, about 23,000 bothered to do the first problem set and only 7,157 passed. But note that over 150,000 expressed enough interest in the course to spend a few minutes registering for a free high-skill course.  Many were no doubt drawn by curiosity, some might have downloaded just what they needed and moved on, others might have monitored the course as a backup to another course they were taking for credit.  Since the course was free to all, all of these people received at least some benefit from the class. Their experience is a success not a failure.  And the 7,157 who passed received a benefit worth thousands of dollars for nothing more than the opportunity cost of their time.  If the two professors giving the course together taught 100 students a year in their regular teaching, it would take them over 71 years to spread an equal amount of knowledge at a much higher costs.

The second complaint is that online courses do little to help struggling students.  This also is false. Since the marginal cost of offering an online course to another student is almost zero, we would expect the price to be close to zero as well.  Comparing the outcome of traditional and online courses without considering this huge savings to the student completely misses both the point and the promise of MOOCs. What the Times seems to have in mind is the gradual substitution of online courses for real ones in colleges that still charge full tuition for both.  This is a problem in that any efficiency gains are not being passed on to students. But this is unlikely to last for long. Competition, often from MOOCs, will gradually force colleges to cut the high fixed costs they have accumulated and increase the value they offer to students. The real solution for students who arrive at college “unprepared to learn, unable to manage time and having failed to master basics like math and English,” is to drastically reform the school districts that failed to teach them.  Expecting these students to pay college tuition to get the education they should have received for free is the true injustice.

Neither K-12 education nor college is governed by a well-structured market that gives students the best education for a given price. Performance seems to get dearer and poorer over time rather than cheaper and better.  MOOCs offer an important innovation that delivers education by some of the best professors from the most prestigious universities at a very low marginal cost.  The goal of public policy should be to encourage their growth and ensure that the benefit of lower costs is passed on to the student. Dramatically lowering the cost of a no-frills education will ensure that colleges eventually offer true value for whatever tuition they do charge.

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