Just two years ago, people were predicting that the global education system would change dramatically because of the emergence of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Universities across North America created centers for innovation and technology, and senior administrators warned their faculty that they were now competing in a global marketplace, where their students might be farmworkers in the Amazon. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Of course, it’s very early to judge the future of MOOCs. But at the moment, the time seems to be flowing out as quickly as the wave of innovation came in. Steve Kolowich has an article in the Chronicle of HIgher Education that describes how Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, says that he has a “lousy product.” The completion rate for people taking MOOCs is terrible. Those people who do finish these courses, for the most part, are the most privileged students, for whom access to education was never an issue. So what does this mean for trends in global education?
While MOOCS may be failing, most universities do face increasing demand for online or hybrid education. I oversees a mid-size program with around 300 declared majors, and about 67 graduates last June. I have seen a rapid change in student demand. Last summer the classes that filled first were the on-line classes, while those taught in a traditional format struggled to gain enough students to make. This trend has continued into the year, and is becoming increasingly difficult for any class taught by an adjunct in a traditional format to find enough students. It’s not that all students like hybrid or on-line classes. I have some students in my hybrid “Foundations of Global Theory” class right now who were very anxious at the start. But after these students have taken a hybrid class once, they are much more likely to do so in the future. And students have such busy lives -work, family, and other obligations- that is much easier to come to campus for a single class, than to come twice a week. So I do think that we’ll see a continuing trend to technology-mediated classes. But in many ways the focus on MOOCs has been much like the early years of internet, when there was so much hype that the expectations for the technology were unrealistic.
I think that an equally important change in the United States and some parts of Europe will be the continued expansion of the neoliberal model to higher education. As many states decrease their funding for higher education (despite some exceptions such as North Carolina or North Dakota), and traditional faculty governance loses power, the idea of what the term “college” means is undergoing a fundamental transformation. As Rebecca Shuman’s recent piece in Slate describes, some universities are cutting even traditional departments such as English, history, and physics. Most state institutions are under intense pressure, which is encouraging “program array review,” often based the “rank and yank” model from the private sector, as made famous by Enron. Some European universities, especially Britain and Ireland, are facing the same pressures.
While it might seem that this is mainly a North American and European problem, I believe that it is one with global implications. As states have shifted the burden for education to students, they have become increasingly savvy shoppers in a global market place. Now is the time of year that I am buried under letters of recommendation. In the past, a very large majority of my recommendations would be to institutions in the United States. Not any more. I am writing two letters of recommendation to the Global Studies program in Freiburg, Germany, where students can take their MA program in English for a fraction of the cost of an M.A. in the United States. The program also allows them to spend two periods of four months each studying at two of four partner institutions, in places as diverse as Buenos Aries and India. South Africa is becoming an increasingly popular choice for my students. Classmates spend their time comparing the merits of the University of Capetown in South Africa and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. And who can blame them? Even at the rates for international students, some non-U.S. universities offer programs for a fraction of the cost of a comparable degree in the United States. And some of these universities offer a set price for the entire graduate program, which is very attractive to students. It is no surprise that the majority of letters of recommendation that I am writing this year are for institutions outside the United States.
In the past, we thought of the United States as a cosmopolitan center, to which in influx of foreign students came to support state institutions and provide an international atmosphere on campus. But now I wonder if the costs of higher education have become so high that the flows of people may begin to reverse. Based on my experience of our International Studies majors, that may now be happening. While they may be more globally focused than other students, I wonder if they are not the first grains in a landslide. In that sense, the future of higher education in the United States -particularly at the graduate level- may be determined as much by the market place as by new delivery methods. And for students looking for a college globally, a series of emerging leaders provides an alternative to education in the United States, where some traditional departments (particularly in the humanities) are in relative decline, at the same time prices are increasing. It seems likely that in the future the global flows of people related to education will be much more diverse than in the past.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University