Three years ago, technology was going to transform higher education. What happened?
Over the course of a few months in early 2012, leading scientists from Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T. started three companies to provide Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. The courses were free. Millions of students signed up. Pundits called it a revolution.
But today, enrollment in traditional colleges remains robust, and undergraduates are paying higher tuition and taking out larger loans than ever before. Universities do not seem poised to join travel agents and video stores on the ash heap of history — at least, not yet.
The failure of MOOCs to disrupt higher education has nothing to do with the quality of the courses themselves, many of which are quite good and getting better. Colleges are holding technology at bay because the only thing MOOCs provide is access to world-class professors at an unbeatable price. What they don’t offer are official college degrees, the kind that can get you a job. And that, it turns out, is mostly what college students are paying for.
Now information technology is poised to transform college degrees. When that happens, the economic foundations beneath the academy will truly begin to tremble.
Traditional college degrees represent several different kinds of information. Elite universities run admissions tournaments as a way of identifying the best and the brightest. That, in itself, is valuable data. It’s why “Harvard dropout” and “Harvard graduate” tell the job market almost exactly the same thing: “This person was good enough to get into Harvard.”
Degrees give meaning and structure to collections of college courses. A bachelor’s degree signifies more than just 120 college credits. To graduate, students need a certain number of upper- and lower-division credits, a major and perhaps a sprinkling of courses in the sciences and humanities.
College degrees are also required to get graduate degrees. It didn’t used to be that way. Back in the 19th century, people interested in practicing law could enroll directly in law school. When Charles Eliot became president of Harvard in 1869, he set to work making bachelor’s degrees a prerequisite for admission to Harvard’s graduate and professional schools. Other colleges followed suit, and by the turn of the century a large and captive market for their educational services had been created.
Most important, traditional college degrees are deeply embedded in government regulation and standard human resources practice. It doesn’t matter how good a teacher you are — if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, it’s illegal for a public school to hire you. Private-sector employers often use college degrees as a cheap and easy way to select for certain basic attributes, mostly the discipline and wherewithal necessary to earn 120 college credits.
Free online courses won’t revolutionize education until there is a parallel system of free or low-fee credentials, not controlled by traditional colleges, that leads to jobs. Now technological innovators are working on that, too....