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Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Economy of Higher Education

Today I have Nancy Wood as guest blogger. Please be sure to check out her unique guest post. Guest posts are always welcome, please contact me.

Why Elite Universities are Being Forced to Move Forward.

Despite the inflationary costs of higher education, a record number of Americans currently hold Bachelor’s degrees. However, in the midst of the recession, degrees that once opened doors are only opening windows. College graduates are working unpaid internships or accepting low-wage and low-skill jobs, hoping for a better opportunity. To the recent college grad, underemployment is more than a source of dissatisfaction; it is a source of financial hardship.  And there is no comfort in the knowledge that fellow graduates share $1 trillion in student loan debt.

But colleges haven’t been unscathed by the recession. Public universities have taken heavy financial hits as state funding has dropped; and with a consumer base that is looking for cost-effective alternatives, many traditional universities are squirming in discomfort as online competitors garner increasing support and legitimacy.

The time is ripe for revolution in higher education, not because of any advances in technology or society; but because its consumer base is developing new needs for a rapidly changing professional world. In many ways, it is the consumer base – not elite universities – that will determine the outcome of this revolution.  Those who fail to see e-learning and MOOCs as part of an enormous change risk falling behind the curve; and institutions are shedding reservations and myopic viewpoints to help steer the masses.
New Purpose + New Method = New Path

Many colleges have expressed fears that MOOCs and other online learning tools threaten to minimize the college experience; and to an extent, this threat is legitimate. Not only are MOOCs and online universities offering competitive alternatives to degree courses; they are threatening the bread and butter of university profits.
Atmosphere and reputation are two intangible factors that entice students and allow universities to increase tuition. To remain competitive, universities scale tuition to compare to other, similarly ranked universities, which in turn makes the rising rates of tuition largely inflationary. However, students who want to fulfill requirements for most professional positions have no choice but to pay these prices.
New Purpose: Obtain Meaningful Knowledge

The economy is breeding students who seek knowledge and skills that can link them directly to the professional world; but the economy is also merging vocation and education by spurring technological advances that in turn produce a need for engineers and programmers. MOOC providers like Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity are poised to offer an alternative to the traditional degree-seeking student through high-quality STEM courses that deliver immediately applicable skills and knowledge that fit the demands of a job market.
According to Thrun, Udacity has already partnered with more than 20 companies that accept Udacity’s certificates of mastery, and some companies are already hiring graduates of Udacity courses. Thrun has further plans of working with companies to design classes in response to workforce needs with a larger vision of connecting talented students with employers.
Not all MOOC sites are so singularly vocationally minded. MOOCs like Coursera offer a wider variety of classes, allowing students who are interested in business and humanities courses to gain high-quality information as well.  Though it’s not vocationally linked, these courses coincide with an emphasis on gaining knowledge instead of gaining a degree. 
New Method: Crowd-Sourced Teaching

Some critics say MOOCs are poor replicas of the classroom experience that merely substitute video lectures and online homework and tests into a dusty teaching formula. Those who are leading the MOOC revolution, however, are fascinated by communities that develop in response to these massive classes.
Erik Rabkin, who is currently teaching an MOOC course to 39,000 students, described the crowd-sourced educational community as somehow like family. In a first-person narrative, Rabkin explains that the forums of MOOCs serve as the hub of educational dialogue and conversation. Each question receives helpful feedback within an average of 22 minutes – all of which is student-created. Rabkin was able to use the forums to clarify or supplement specific areas of information by creating additional content based on the community’s needs.
The responsive and organic structure of the crowd-sourced community is a defining and revolutionizing element of an MOOC. The next step for universities and other invested parties is to create environments that are even more engaging and individually adaptable while also promoting global accessibility and high educational standards.
New Path: To Be Determined

If there is one thing that all educational circles can agree on, it’s that the future of the MOOC is uncertain. While some universities remain skeptical and intimidated, many elite universities are launching experimental ventures and investing millions of dollars into structuring their own massive open online courses. The path is developing, but as of right now, the methods are largely experimental.
While critics may point out that partnerships between elite universities are not foolproof recipes for success –citing instances such as online education ventures Fathom and AllLearn – MOOCs have a potential global consumer base of millions. With millions of people across the world looking for an alternative to traditional degree paths, universities have the opportunity to restructure their institutional models, not only to satisfy utopian educational ideals, but also to satisfy a consumer demand.
This guest post is courtesy of Nancy Wood, a prolific blogger and staunch supporter of global education initiatives. She frequently contributes to, and in her free time, she revels in her own geekdom by taking free online classes.
Nancy loves talking about education, and she welcomes your feedback and questions!

Comment below to reach her.

Many thanks to Nancy.
Enjoy your reading!