Your Massively Open Offline College Is Broken

by Clay Shirky

I wrote a thing last fall about massive open online courses (MOOCs, in the parlance), and the challenge that free or cheap online classes pose to business as usual in higher ed. In that piece, I compared the people running colleges today to music industry executives in the age of Napster. (This was not a flattering comparison.) Aaron Bady, a cultural critic and doctoral candidate at Berkeley, objected. I replied to Bady, one thing led to another, the slippery slope was slupped, and Maria Bustillos ended up refereeing the whole thing here on The Awl.

Bustillos sees institutions like San Jose State experimenting with credit for online courses from startups like Udacity, and asks: “are we willing to jeopardize the education of young people (at the cost of millions or billions in public funds) on a bet like that?”

To which my reply is: “Depends. How well do you think things are going now?”

Bustillos’ answers seem to be that in the world of higher education, things are going fine, mostly, and that the parts that aren’t going fine can largely be fixed with tax dollars. (Because if there’s one group you’d pin your hopes for an American renaissance on, it would be state legislators.) I have a different answer: School is broken and everyone knows it.

That sentiment is the first sentence of Kio Stark’s forthcoming book, Don’t Go Back to School. It’s a guide for people taking the advice in the title; Stark interviewed almost hundred people who dropped out or took a pass on everything from high school to grad school, but still figured out how to learn what they needed to learn, in order to do what they wanted to do.

If you want to see what’s driving the imperative to learn without paying for a traditional education, take a look at this chart, originally from a Citi report.


Forget private school. Tuition and fees at public four-year colleges went up 72% last decade, even as the market value of a bachelor’s degree fell by 15%.

The value of that degree remains high in relative terms, but only because people with bachelor’s degrees have seen their incomes shrink less over the last few years than people who don’t have them. “Give us tens of thousands of dollars and years of your life so you can suffer less than your peers” isn’t much of a proposition. More like a ransom note, really.

This is the background to the entire conversation around higher education: Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, “Isn’t there some other way to do this?”

MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree. Most stories have focused on the lightning, on MOOCs as the flashy new thing. I want to talk about the tree.

* * *

In her piece for The Awl, Bustillos asks us to put ourselves in the position of an 18-year-old embarking on an academic career, to which the only sensible response is “No, let’s not do that.” Focusing on the nation’s college-bound 18-year-olds is an almost perfect recipe for misunderstanding higher education in this country.

If you ask Google what a college student looks like (SafeSearch on, please), you get a gaggle of chipper adolescents. And if you ask Google, the collective id of the wired world, what a college campus looks like, you’d conclude that their second biggest expense after salary is fertilizer. These two images — the young person on a journey of self-discovery; the stone building on the verdant lawn — are in the background of most mainstream conversations about college, images that are familiar, comforting, and statistically wrong. Students younger than 23 are now in the minority, and competitive, residential colleges are a minority of the institutions that serve them.

Imagine picking a thousand students at random from among our institutions of higher education. Now imagine unpicking everyone at one of US News’ Top 100 liberal arts colleges or universities. You’d expel anyone from the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT. Anyone from from Emory or Rice. Anyone from Vanderbilt, Clemson, Drexel. Anyone from the famously good state schools — UMass, Virginia, the California universities. After ejecting those students from your group, how many of the original thousand would be left?

About 900.

The total enrollment on those two lists — which includes almost every good college you’ve ever heard of and some you haven’t (Wabash; SUNY College of Forestry) — only accounts for a tenth or so of the 18 million or so students enrolled this year at one of our thousands of institutions of higher education.

If you want to know what college is actually like in this country, forget Swarthmore, with 1500 students. Think Houston Community College, with 63,000. Think rolling admissions. Think commuter school. Think older. Think poorer. Think child-rearing, part-time, night class. Think 50% dropout rates. Think two-year degree. (Except don’t call it that, because most graduates take longer than two years to complete it. If they complete it.)

If you want to know what college is actually like in this country, skip Google Images, and scroll through the (still heartbreaking) We Are The 99 Percent Tumblr, looking for the keywords “student loan.”

* * *

Though educational materials have been online for as long as there’s been an online, and though the term ‘MOOC’ was coined half a decade ago, it was only last year that they stopped being regarded as a curiosity, and started being thought of as a significant alternative to traditional college classes. In the face of this threat, the inheritors of that tradition are making a case for themselves.

In a widely quoted piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education last summer, Daryl Tippens, the Provost of Pepperdine, mounted that defense this way:

We know that effective learning is best achieved through the engagement of other deeply attentive human beings. The learning might occur in a traditional classroom, but it might happen in a different space: a lab, a mountain stream, an international campus, a cafeteria, a residence hall, a basketball court.

No PowerPoint presentation or elegant online lecture can make up for the surprise, the frisson, the spontaneous give-and-take of a spirited, open-ended dialogue with another person.

As MOOCs threaten to encroach on face-to-face learning, institutions like Pepperdine are standing foursquare against the virtualization of the college experience, against weakening the sacred interaction that… hang on, what’s this? Pepperdine offers online degrees? Why yes. Yes it does.

After the Provost had staked his institution’s reputation on the production of IRL frissons and whatnot, you’d think they’d keep this sort of thing to a minimum, but nope. You can get a masters online from Pepperdine. You can get a doctorate. While taking 85% percent of your classes over the internet. (So much for that mountain stream.) But don’t worry, that 15% face-to-face meeting time is strategically scheduled.

Even the spontaneous giving-and-taking among deeply attentive human beings can sometimes take a beating at Pepperdine:

The main disservice to the Humanities series is that instead of conducting classes in standard intimate class settings students are herded into large lecture classes…. The course’s enrollment stands at around 245 students but only about half come on a regular basis. An informative lecture about the bubonic plague is merely background noise to a room full of students on Facebook.

Ah yes, the open-ended dialogue that emerges from cutting your big lecture classes. I remember it well.

Pepperdine is, I want to emphasize, a good school. It’s a great school, in fact. Their religion thing might not be your bag, but if someone you know got into Pepperdine, you’d be happy for them. That’s the key bit: even great schools offer online classes. Even great schools, with low student/teacher ratios, have at least some big, impersonal lectures. There isn’t any pure college left to rally around. (Ok, ok, Deep Springs and St. John’s College. But you know what I mean.)

The platonic versions of college defended by Teppins and his ilk sound idyllic, but they don’t sound like most actually existing colleges. Often, they don’t even sound like the colleges where the defenders themselves work.

* * *

Both Bustillos and Bady are outraged about the threats to higher education, as well they should be, and as am I. The biggest difference between us is that I think the calls are coming from inside the building.

Prior to the internet, the last technology that really reorganized teaching was the microphone. Without a microphone, manageable class size tops out at about 50. With a microphone, the sky’s the limit — you can have huge lectures with expensive profs, and lots of sections taught by cheap TAs and adjuncts. What’s not to like?

The microphone was a way to lower our cost per student, without lowering the price we charged. That pattern is common to many of the changes these last thirty years or so. More internships. More transfer credits. More recognizing credit for work, or “life experience.” More competency-based credits, meaning credit for knowing something, rather than for learning something. And so on.

The end game is degrees that are little more than receipts for work done elsewhere. Empire State, Excelsior, Thomas Edison, all these institutions and more convert a loose set of credits into a diploma, without much of anything resembling a curriculum. A kid named Richard Linder just figured out how to get an Associates Degree by stitching together 60 credits from 8 separate institutions, not one credit of which was earned in a college classroom. (Fully a quarter were from various forms of FEMA certification.) Linder gets an A for moxie, but it doesn’t say much for the institutions nominally policing educational coherence.

This vitiation of the diploma is Goodhart’s Law in action, where a socially useful metric becomes increasingly worthless, because the incentives pushing towards adulteration are larger than those pushing towards purity. This is not some bad thing that was done to us in the academy. We did this to ourselves, under the rubric of ordinary accreditation, at nonprofits and state schools. Yet I’ve never once heard the professors fulminating about MOOCs also suggest shutting down Excelsior College. In the academy, we are terrible at combating threats from the current educational system, but we are terrific at combating threats to it.

The thing to understand about the current conversation is how bad things were, for how many students, long before organizations like University of the People ever launched. In the academy, we’ve been running a grey market in unsupervised internships and larger and larger lectures for a generation already. MOOCs threaten that market.

Bustillos worries that San Jose State and Udacity are charging $150 a course. But what’s the public college alternative? They could be going to California’s UC Online program, where a course costs $1400. The San Jose deal was brokered by Governor Brown in part because he was so disgusted with what his own institutions were up to.

In the academy, we’re fine with anything that lowers the cost of education. We love those kinds of changes. But when someone threatens to lower the price, well, then we start behaving like Teamsters in tweed.

* * *

I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.

And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale — whose only excuse for existing — is to make people smarter.

Sometimes we try to make ourselves smarter. We call that research. Sometimes we try to make our peers smarter. We call that publishing. Sometimes we try to make our students smarter. We call that teaching. And that’s it. That’s all there is. These are important jobs for sure, and they are hard jobs at times, but they’re not magic. And neither are we.

Mostly, we’re doing the best we can. (Though some of us aren’t, as with bottom-feeding scum like Kaplan U and Everest, but those institutions are just asset-stripping student loans.) But our way of doing the best we can is to keep doing what we’ve always done, modifying it a bit with stuff we make up as we go along. Just like most people inside most institutions. Some years that works out fine, but we haven’t had so many of those years recently.

For all our good will, college in the U.S. has gotten worse for nearly everyone who relies on us. For some students — millions of them — the institutions in which they enroll are more reliable producers of debt than education. This has happened on our watch.

The competition from upstart organizations will make things worse for many of us. (I like the experiments we’ve got going at NYU, but I don’t fantasize that we’ll be unscathed.) After two decades of watching, though, I also know that that’s how these changes go. No industry has ever organized an orderly sharing of power with newcomers, no matter how interesting or valuable their ideas are, unless under mortal threat.

Instead, like every threatened profession, I see my peers arguing that we, uniquely, deserve a permanent bulwark against insurgents, that we must be left in charge of our destiny, or society will suffer the consequences. Even the record store clerks tried that argument, back in the day. In the academy, we have a lot of good ideas and a lot of practice at making people smarter, but it’s not obvious that we have the best ideas, and it is obvious that we don’t have all the ideas. For us to behave as if we have — or should have — a monopoly on educating adults is just ridiculous.

Related: Venture Capital’s Massive, Terrible Idea For The Future Of College

Clay Shirky is an Associate Professor at NYU. Photo of UC Berkeley’s Pimentel Hall by Daniel Parks.