Are in-person academic communities luxury goods?
posted by Aaron Saiger
Since I began posting as a guest on Concurring Opinions at the beginning of March, “MOOCs” – massively open online courses – have been repeated topic. The blog search engine reports that the term did not appear on the blog until 25 Feb 2013; in the six weeks since, MOOCs have been a topic here, here, here, here, here, here, and, in Deven Desai’s interesting post two days ago, here. Deven says, and I agree, that the aggregation of students together inside an immersive academic, learning community is a real good, and one that cannot be duplicated by a set of MOOCs. But the question MOOCs make pressing is how to value that good, once it can be unbundled from training in the classroom. Nannerl Keohane, in a recent review in Perspectives on Politics (11:1, March 2013, p.318), says that “online education … is the easiest and cheapest way to learn a variety of subjects, especially useful ones,” and describes it is the contemporary analogue of “mutual-aid societies and lyceums.” This seems apt.
University insiders like to say that even unbundled academic community is indispensable, and should be subsidized by both state and university. I suspect that the marketplace will put a much lower value on it. State legislators, ever strapped for cash, will likely do so as well. There will still be a market for 24/7, bricks-and-mortar academic communities; but the online availability of downmarket, imperfect, but genuine partial substitutes will mark such communities more clearly as luxury goods. Once such luxuries are no longer inexorably bundled with direct instruction, the argument that they still deserve state or even philanthropic subsidy is not, it seems to me, a slam-dunk.
Deven posted that the key question is how to “leverage MOOCs and other technology to improve the way education is delivered while not offering only the virtual world” but also social context to those not in the luxury-goods market. Another way of phrasing that question is to ask whether there is a mid-market good, somewhere between the aggregation of naked MOOCs and the bricks-and-mortar private college, that could command interest in the marketplace and justify third-party subsidies. What features of the “code” of online courses – the way that they are presented, taught, bundled together, and converted into credentials – might be adjusted to create a closer approximation of an immersive community, without sacrificing the advantages virtual teaching offers in terms of access over distance, asynchronicity, economies of scale, and cost?