A few thoughts on technology and future of higher education

by Jake Wobig

Those who know me know that I have a slight obsession with the possibilities for technology to revolutionize higher education, so I lapped up this weekend’s bounty of articles about the topic from the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Monthly.  What I learned is to not expect the revolution to come soon.  By all appearances the people with the resources to lead the shift – venture capital in Silicon Valley – don’t understand what they are doing, and that leaves us waiting for the universities and publishers to take action, which might be awhile coming because their interests are more for evolution than revolution.

The problem is that, at least according to the Washington Monthly article, Silicon Valley is imagining online higher education being something like Facebook or Ebay.  The idea is for the tech companies to create “platforms” and then users will generate free content that other users will then want to view, and the techies then monetize with advertising or user fees.  Anyone in academia can tell you there is a huge problem with this business model: the people with the expertise to make the content (courses) lack the capital to make a quality product.  Let me explain.

If you are an expert in some area of study within higher education you are probably employed as a professor at a college somewhere.  The criteria by which you are measured is 1) the number and quality of research publications you produce, 2) the number and quality of courses you teach, and 3) the service you provide to your department and the college community more generally.  At the more prestigious universities the requirement for research far outweighs the other two, at liberal arts colleges there is more balance.  Particularly as a young professor trying to make tenure, you should put the preponderance of your energy into conducting your own research.  Publish or perish is not just a saying. at an R1 it really doesn’t matter how good a teacher you are – if you don’t have a distinguished publication record you get fired.  I have even heard stories that at some top tier programs untenured profs are actively discouraged from putting effort into teaching, or even denied tenure, because it is taken as evidence they don’t take their research seriously enough.

(Why is this? At least part of it is because the ratings system gives so much weight to reputation and reputation is won through research)

The incentives for an academic are therefore to put his/her energies into research and skimp on teaching.  If untenured profs have little incentive to put work into the classes they are teaching to live students, why would they put any effort into creating online courses on spec to hypothetical future students?  It would just be a distraction that would divert them from the real task at hand and could result in them being denied raises or promotions in the future.

But that’s not the end of it.  There are some people are just interested enough in online teaching that they are willing to put together courses even taking account of these risks.  But if you have looked at any online courses on Coursera or other sources, you’ll see that they just are not very good.  The reason is that college professors have a narrow set of skills that don’t encapsulate everything you would need to have a quality online higher ed experience.  Professors are experts in their subject matter, but they are usually not experts in pedagogy, and they are almost never experts in online pedagogy, not to mention design, remote assessment, gamification, animation, documentary film-making, intellectual property law, and just general web production that would be necessary to make online courses truly revolutionary.

Based on this, I anticipate that we’ll be much more likely to see the revolution in higher ed led by either the universities or the publishing houses.  These groups have a better sense of academic incentives and are less likely to fall into this false premise of the ‘platform’ model that ‘if you build it they will come.’  To get a quality product, some entity is going to have to provide professors with capital up front to produce it, both in terms of monetary resources and in terms of access to teams of other experts to help with all those aspects of course design that any one individual probably does not have.

Sorry for the sloppy writing. This was written very quickly because, as an academic, I really have to get back to my research.