Design Issues in The New Universe: Who Are the Learners? Cost v. Quality: Part I

One of the most potentially deceptive promises being made today by innovators eyeing the New Universe is this: We can get you a world class education for a fraction of what you would pay elsewhere. Price promises of this type can go as low as $1000/year. I strongly believe in, and have written about, the coming disruption in cost and price, driven by the information revolution and its underlying technologies. Costs, and prices, can be decimated in some cases while preserving evidence of quality.

Having said that, there are several reasons to be skeptical of these claims, prima facie, and not simply take them at face value. For instance, they do not always incorporate explicitly the potential and possibility of high quality in the new universe, or its cost, in the learning model. Similarly, any claims of quality need to be assessed in terms of what the educational program is being asked to do, and for whom.

In the next four blogs, I will take four questions and discuss their importance in the cost v. quality discussion that must occur as the New Universe of Learning rolls out before us.

Who are the learners? As we learned from the MOOC experience, great content all by itself has little impact on student persistence and success. The MOOC model worked well for a small minority of learners, most of whom were self-starters and already had at least a bachelor’s degree. They worked for the people who were already able to benefit. The major innovation was what they represented: the production of superb content from our greatest universities available at no cost. As a source of sustained, successful and purposeful learning for students who theretofore had lacked access, however, they failed. I felt that when Sebastian Thrun said that MOOCs had failed as an educational venture, he had missed the point. They never were an educational venture; they were courses, unadorned with other services, offered online. It was, at its heart, a ‘survival of those who fit the model’ offer, genuine for only a few.

As learners migrate to the new universe, they will come in many forms with many aspirations. I believe there will be two major groups: recreational learners looking to satisfy personal interests and everyone else: people trapped in life patterns that keep them away from campuses and the incumbent model returning to upgrade job skills, finish a degree, if necessary, and learn purposefully throughout life as the situation requires. These learners will want the quickest and least expensive path to a worthy and reliable educational outcome. The interplay between cost and quality is more than a sales slogan. It lies at the heart of the educational proposition. In this mayhem of aspirations and new delivery models and mechanisms, programs’ cost and quality, range of services, and predictive capacity— in short their mission— must be tied to the needs of their student body and expensed appropriately.

We know that most of these learners, if they are to be successful, will need not only a price they can afford but also a learning program that is geared to their comprehensive needs, not simply instruction. I believe that the new universe holds great potential for meeting these needs at lower price points with higher success rates. Without careful educational thought, comprehensive design, and excellent preparation and training, however, we will see a re-enactment of the revolving door that has characterized so much of America’s campaign to create equal educational opportunity.

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