October 2013

Volume 28 Number 10

Don't Get Me Started - Remaking Higher Education

By David Platt | October 2013

David PlattI was saving this topic for its customary January slot, but events overtook me. About 18 months ago, I reported on the first computer science massive open online course (MOOC), Sebastian Thrun’s AI class at Stanford (msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/hh708761). Then six months ago, I reported that MOOCs were becoming popular, but had yet to replace regular college courses because they failed to award credit toward a degree (msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/jj883963). I predicted this would change quickly because of the compelling economics. It has, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.

Georgia Tech is now offering an online master’s degree in computer science, using MOOCs (see b.gatech.edu/140FDnH and slate.me/163CyTJ). The tuition is a thrifty $6,600, compared to $45,000 for the school’s conventional program. You won’t get much face time with the faculty, but for that price, who cares? How much face time did you ever get in college, and how much was it worth? (For me, outside the physics department, damn little and damn little.)

Jonathan Rees, professor of history at Colorado State, thinks MOOCs are evil (slate.me/1499qaL). I think he’s more worried about the loss of his tenured job and perks, and about having to deal with economic forces from which he has hitherto sheltered in academia. Welcome to the real world like the rest of us, pal.

Worse, I think he’s narrow-minded and not looking at how the greater availability of good, cheap education would benefit the world—not just in lowering the cost and improving the quality of conventional college, but in ways no one has yet thought. Imagine a MOOC on poetry stimulating the minds of people in an old folks’ home. Or prison inmates learning a skill other than license-plate making, so they have some chance of employment when they get out. Or enrichment for smart high school students like my daughters will be. Or … you get the idea.

Rees reminds me of the movie executives in the early 1980s who tried, unsuccessfully, to block VCRs. For another of my beloved analogies, compare movies to live theater. The latter costs less to produce initially, but each performance requires expensive actors and musicians in an expensive, dedicated building. The former costs more to make, but each performance costs almost nothing, so you can spread that cost over as many units as you can sell through as many channels as you can stuff them. A movie ticket in New York City costs $10, a musical theater ticket costs $100. They sell a lot more movie tickets. The same economics will apply to MOOCs versus live-delivery education. Georgia Tech expects to attract enough MOOC students to make a profit in its first year.

I’ve always favored creative destruction. I’ve never mourned for the typewriter manufacturers or travel agents or encyclopedia salesmen that I’ve helped put out of business. But then I’ve always been the creative destructor, never the creatively destructed.

I’m pondering how to adjust my own offerings. What makes my online Harvard Extension class on .NET worth $2,000? MOOCs don’t offer direct contact with the instructor, because that can’t scale. So I’m inviting every student to Skype me personally at the start of the class—that way I know who they are and what they’re doing, where they’re coming from, and to where they’re trying to get. I used to do that before distance learning, when all the students came to the auditorium and I could talk to them in person. I flatter myself that face time with me, as opposed to some anonymous droning grad student, is worth something. I wonder how a contact buzz would propagate through an online group beer session.

Will Georgia Tech be able to maintain quality in its online program? I think so. The school is partnering with Thrun’s company Udacity, which knows more about running MOOCs than anyone else. There are still some challenges to figure out, as always at this stage. Detecting cheating is a big one, as is connecting graduates to potential employers. But as I said in my first article, with these compelling economics, the challenges will get solved.

If I were a traditional four-year residential college, I’d be quaking right now. But as the father of a teenager (see msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/dn385715), soon to be a college student, I’m really happy to see this first falling boulder of an extremely large avalanche.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.