October 8, 2012


Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Disruption? (Jonathan Marks, 10/05/12, Inside Higher Ed)

As a politics professor, I feel I should know something about health policy, but it is mostly dread that made me sign up for Ezekiel Emanuel's class, Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act, through Coursera. Word is that higher education is about to be disrupted by online providers, like Coursera and Udacity, and their MOOCs (massive open online courses). If students can take political philosophy with Harvard's Michael Sandel for free, why will they pay to take it with me?

 Have you seen Professor Sandel's course? I bet I am not alone in wanting to take his more than I want to take mine. Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of Udacity, predicts that in 50 years there will be no more than 10 higher education institutions. Thrun isn't quietly waiting for his prediction to pan out, either. Pearson VUE recently contracted to administer proctored final exams for some of Udacity's courses, an important step toward offering credit that most colleges will find hard to reject.

But the "college credit monopoly" may have been the only thing protecting me from Sandel. Dean Dad explains that students who can get college credits for free will have more incentive than ever to max out the transfer credits they are allowed and less incentive than ever to buy my college's expensive products, including, I cannot help emphasizing, me.  It is just my luck that, amid what some are calling a great stagnation, one of the few big advances in the offing wants to eat my job. I signed up for Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act, then, half-hoping for a bad experience.

But at first, the course seemed alarmingly good. Emanuel, as health policy adviser to the director of the OMB, helped craft the Affordable Care Act. An oncologist, author and food critic, he is disgustingly accomplished. No wonder that over 30,000 students wanted to be in a virtual room with Emanuel, now a vice-provost and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. A wry and engaging lecturer, Emanuel delivered. Though he did not hide his affection for the Affordable Care Act, he also revealed some of the cynical calculations that went into the law.

Had we paid any money, we would have gotten our money's worth: an insider's account of the challenges the American health care system faces, of how the Affordable Care Act seeks to meet them, and of obstacles to the new law's success. Professor Emanuel's lectures were supplemented by informative readings that covered in depth the very topics, like malpractice reform, cost control, and innovation, that a health policy novice wants to know more about.

After completing the eight-week course, however, I am optimistic that this kind of MOOC will not eat my job because it and I are not really in the same business. At Ursinus College, where I teach, the faculty and administration work individually and collectively to help our students cultivate judgment, the capacity to decide what to think or how to act in areas, like health policy, where no formula can generate the right answer. While we cannot help our students without demanding that they take an active role in their education, we also assume that they do not come in with their judgments already cultivated. College should be a transformative experience for them, and they will need guidance.

For all its virtues, Health Policy and the Affordable Care Act offered almost no guidance, and I now think, as I will explain later, that this absence of guidance is not a temporary defect that tweaks will soon correct, but rather a built-in feature of the Coursera model.

It's a quaint theory, but if we cared about educating kids we wouldn't send so many ineducable ones to college.  Instead, higher education exists to give job applicants diplomas like the ones those hiring them have.  They're just stars to differentiate us from the other sneeches.

Posted by at October 8, 2012 5:23 AM

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