Context over Content in the Age of MOOCs

Context over Content in the Age of MOOCs
If institutions refuse to focus on differentiating themselves with content, they will quickly find themselves unable to compete in the commoditized higher education marketplace.

Ask any senior university administrator and they will reluctantly admit that, over the last two decades, their institution has invested far more heavily in the context of education than in its content. The recent nationwide campus building boom — new labs and dormitories, spectacular student athletic facilities, renewed attention to grounds and campus aesthetics (for view book enhancement) — and the faculty’s inability to frame a substantive undergraduate curriculum has led universities to focus on providing an undergraduate “experience” rather than a university education. In addition, the persistence of older faculty to remain in their academic positions has enabled universities to limit new faculty hires, except in areas of high student demand such as business and other pre-professional programs.

The focus on context has now made choosing a university by students an emotional, rather than a rational, decision.*

Undergraduate education is, in essence, a commodity. The same quality curriculum can be obtained at virtually any public or private non-sectarian institution. Except for their architectural style and geographic location, there is little difference between one institution and another. There are good teachers and bad teachers everywhere, usually in the same proportion from institution to institution. The proportion of large section courses to small section courses varies little from one university to another. Only the smallest colleges are devoid of large lecture sections. It is no wonder institutions focus on context rather than content to distinguish themselves in the marketplace for collegiate admissions. With the passage of time, however, context will be as much a commodity as content. Virtually all institutions have fitness centers, all have gorgeous student centers, all have undergraduate research programs, all have student support services and all have good food (or at least are attempting to improve the cuisine).

Now, along comes the proliferation of online instruction — Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), institutional syndicates producing online courses and degree programs and individual institutions developing electronically-delivered programs of their own — which further commoditizes undergraduate education.

Content is even more commoditized and, now, generic. Faculty will be even further marginalized and, at some institutions, rendered superfluous or even eliminated. Already, in their eagerness to join the rush to participate, university administrators have signed up with MOOC providers or formed their own consortia, often without faculty involvement or participation. The administrative camel has already poked its nose into the curricular tent of the faculty! Indeed, in some states, legislators are already looking to this online massification of instruction as a way to slash higher education budgets and dispense with faculty altogether (perhaps an administrator’s dream come true). They would, in effect, turn their state universities into higher education institutions without faculty. They would turn those campuses, those athletic facilities, those dorms and restaurants into public country clubs for youth that keep students off the job market for four years.

Fully commoditized educational content, however, ultimately makes all campuses, all institutions, disposable — regardless of contextual differences.

If universities and colleges increasingly look alike, if their curricula are barely different from one another, if the food service is provided by national franchises at all campuses — is a strategy founded on selling context still the right one for university administrators? More than likely, that strategy will continue to dominate. But, given the prospect and now the reality of technologically-delivered instruction on a truly massive scale, perhaps we should consider an alternative: a return to an emphasis on content. I know this suggestion is counter-intuitive. But if all institutions teach the same things, perhaps the possibilities of differentiation amongst them can proceed on the basis of content foci, and the existence of a community of faculty and students pursuing similar interests.

Perhaps now, more than ever, is the time for universities to move away from seriously flawed rankings and context and return to educational content as the true differentiator.

Some universities have been doing this for years: Brown University with its requirement-less undergraduate curriculum; St. John’s College with its Great Books curriculum; the University of Minnesota, Morris; Miami University of Ohio; and the College of New Jersey defining themselves as Public Ivies. Or how about University of Wisconsin-Stout with its vocational-based orientation, as well as numerous denominational-based institutions that focus on values and ethics. These colleges and universities all promote content over context.

Now, truly necessary is:

  1. A refashioning of the curriculum; a determined effort to define rigorously undergraduate education. After all, the existing faculty governance over curriculum driven by ideology mirrors the current political climate.
  2. A determination of the faculty to invest intellectually in course development and delivery
  3. A reworking of the reward and tenure system to recognize and advance serious attention to undergraduate teaching. If just for self-preservation and for the furtherance of their commitment to scholarship, faculty must put aside their particular ideological and parochial interests in favor of the common good and identify and strengthen the uniqueness of their undergraduate curriculum.

Faced with the prospect of diminished intellectual effort in defining and teaching an undergraduate curriculum, and faced with a technologically-driven curriculum and courses that are uniform across the country, faculty and administrators ought to be busy defining what is truly unique about their respective institutions and making prominent what they really have to offer: educational content, not the experience. Otherwise, most of our institutions will be generic service stations, with faculty playing but a minor role, if any.

Is American higher education, the current envy of the world, going to be reduced to a shell of its former self in this brave new world?

*The adult continuing education student is less concerned with context than the traditional college-aged student, and more concerned with convenience and time to a degree. Convenience and speed will be similarly subjected to commoditization, and continuing education administrators should be looking for attributes that distinguish their programs in the marketplace — perhaps quality and content?

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Readers Comments

Rebecca Cruser 2013/06/10 at 10:54 am

The institutions Grossman identifies as ones that focus more on content than on context are a bit of a red herring, in my opinion. Many of them have had their curricula in place for a number of years, before commoditization became as much of a concern as it is now. I wonder how much of these institutions’ success has to do with reputation (such as Brown University) as opposed to their focus on content.

Will Wright 2013/06/10 at 2:02 pm

Grossman makes a good point that, though counter intuitive, a renewed focus on content over context may be what saves higher education. I hope institutions take heed of this advice. My question for Grossman is: how would you propose getting the administration to buy in to this idea?

Rebecca Cruser 2013/06/11 at 5:39 am

Funding models need to change in order for Grossman’s proposal to work. Funding that is based largely on enrollment and graduation numbers will force institutions to focus on context to attract students. On the other hand, funding based on post-graduation employment figures may favor institutions that deliver high-quality content. We need brave legislators and higher education administrators to stand up and demand changes to current funding criteria so we can encourage high-quality undergraduate education.

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