Just a Little Apocalyptic Prognostication on a Tuesday Morning

Some original Luddites in an 1812 engraving.  They're trashing a mechanical loom because it took their jobs.

Some original Luddites in an 1812 engraving. They’re trashing a mechanical loom because it and similar industrial machines replaced human workers.

I often get inspiration for these articles from current events.  In light of the Harvard email-snooping flap, I had originally thought about writing on digital privacy, except that a news item on the Chronicle’s website caught my eye this morning and got me to thinking about the apocalypse.  Well, not the literal apocalypse–just an educational one.  Maybe “epochal change” or “paradigm shift” would be better terms. But gosh darn it, what good is being a blogger if I can’t use hyperbole?

MOOCs: Temptingly Affordable and Accessible

We’ve written a lot about e-learning and MOOCs and the like here (maybe to excess), and I’m sure many of our readers notice stories like the California legislature’s move to steer students in the state’s college and university systems to MOOCs as a workaround for class availability problems.  Massive open online courses get touted mainly for just that kind of reason: accessibility.  They are cheap, even free, to attend, and their asynchronous nature can make them convenient for nontraditional students, particularly those who work and/or have families to care for.

For those who have to work to support themselves and their families, “affordable and flexible” are mighty attractive options–especially in the current climate where, as W&M’s own Bob Archibald and David Feldman write, cost disease is driving up the sticker price of higher education at a faster rate than normal background inflation. The item I noticed this morning was this: Student Aid Can Be Awarded for ‘Competencies,’ Not Just Credit Hours, U.S. Says.

A New Digital Divide?

Competency-based education is in many ways the antithesis to the seat-time-based notion of the credit hour, and is a core tenet of e-learning, since accomplishment must by necessity be based on mastery, not time of exposure to learning experiences.   This opens the door to federal student aid being allocated to schools, and therefore students, who partake of purely online experiences.  Where, you ask, is the doom in that?

I’m not saying it’s probable, but it is certainly possible, that shifts in higher education toward online learning could lead to a new “Digital Divide,” where the great masses of students are expected to self-administer their own digital education while only the affluent or otherwise privileged are afforded the opportunity for the traditional, residential college experience. In this scenario, if purely online education becomes the norm, competition for traditional students might become quite fierce. How many institutions would survive? The top 50? The top 100?

How Might Graduate Students Be Affected?

What happens to the other 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States in a case like this — do they become digital coursework publishing houses, or networks of online course facilitators?  Of course, research is a factor, too, so maybe R1 institutions would be safe from fallout — except, where would graduate students come from?  In my own higher ed coursework, we’ve discussed how the “cultural capital” needed to succeed in college is usually associated with privilege, and its lack associated with first-generation students and the like; in this possible future, it will also be associated with those privileged enough to have had a residential undergraduate experience.

I can see the transition from at-home digital scholar to resident graduate student being just as jarring for an individual as for any first-semester freshman. Now, I’m not trying to be a fear monger, and I’m far from thinking that online learning is an ill. But I do want to make you think about these things, because we need to do so ahead of time, before the word “crisis” gets attached to anything.

Online Learning: Not Just a Thing of the Devil

I’ve had conversations with educators who think online learning is a thing of the devil.  But realistically, it’s our best idea so far regarding goals like the White House’s challenge that the U.S. achieve the highest proportion of college graduates in the world, and that every American complete at least one year of higher education. Looking at 2011 census data*, that’s almost 87 million additional years of higher education to achieve that second goal, counting only people aged 25 and up with no college experience. Likewise, I’ve been exposed to plenty of rah-rah rhetoric about how MOOCs are going to “disrupt” and “revolutionize” higher education, in oh-most-wonderful ways, without paying attention to some details like attrition rates far higher than traditional courses.

Well, I, for one, don’t feel saved, but (the above notwithstanding) I don’t think I need to start working on my sandwich board quite yet. I am, as a burgeoning higher education scholar, a little intimidated by the hard work ahead in navigating these issues.

* I used:  =(B7-SUM(F7:K7)) — someone let me know if I screwed that up!

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.


  1. Charles Palermo says:

    Thank you for a thoughtful entry on on-line learning. Since the principal attraction of on-line learning seems to be making an undergraduate education available to more people, on the assumption that that will help them make their way in the economy, I thought I’d offer a link to a recent piece (originally from PMLA, Vol. 127, No. 4, October 2012) that examines that idea: http://nonsite.org/editorial/dude-wheres-my-job
    Thanks again.