Who Are MOOCs Most Likely to Help?

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It may turn out that electronic degree programs designed to make education democratic will actually only work for the elite.

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The precursor of MOOCs: Indian students learn by video in 2000. (Reuters)

If you've become a true believer in the power of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other "disruptive" web-based programs to break the cost spiral of higher education, you should read the excellent analysis by two writers of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk, "For Whom Is College Being Reinvented?" They're not against MOOCs, certificates, and other alternatives to conventional schools for students with solid secondary backgrounds. But they make the excellent point that these appeal most to the families that need them least and are best able to sort out the high-quality programs from the dubious ones.

Carlson and Blumenstyk's sources agree that, for a growing number of students in colleges with minimal endowments, web-based courses just aren't enough:

Here's the cruel part: The students from the bottom tier are often the ones who need face-to-face instruction most of all.

"The idea that they can have better education and more access at lower cost through massive online courses is just preposterous," says Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University. Seventy percent of her students are eligible for Pell Grants, and 50 percent come from the broken District of Columbia school system. ...

Getting them to and through college takes advisers, counselors, and learning-disability experts -- a fact Ms. McGuire has tried to convey to foundations, policy makers, and the public. But the reinvention conversation has had a "tech guy" fixation on mere content delivery, she says. "It reveals a lack of understanding of what it takes to make the student actually learn the content and do something with it."

Amid the talk of disruptive innovation, "the real disruption is the changing demographics of this country," Trinity's president says. Waves of minority students, especially Hispanics, are arriving on campus, many at those lower-tier colleges, having come from schools that didn't prepare them for college work. "The real problem here is that higher education has to repeat a whole lot of lower education," Ms. McGuire says. "That has been drag on everyone."

Of course the MOOC enthusiasts might reply that web tutorials like Khan Academy -- a favorite cause of Bill Gates, among others -- might transform secondary education for Trinity's prospective students. But such video tutorials, useful as they are in some scientific and technical subjects, have their limits.

Historically, it's not unusual for programs started for the masses to turn out to reinforce inequality. Britain's tony public schools originally deserved their name; they were founded for the education of young men of humble origins for the priesthood. Labor-saving technology also has a way of requiring much more human effort than expected, as the historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan has shown of the 20th-century home-appliance boom.

This doesn't mean rejecting web-based technology in education, any more than we renounce washing machines. (Line-drying, on the other hand, may be reborn as a solar breakthrough.) It does mean that it isn't a substitute for qualified staff and the money to pay them in restoring the promise of higher education.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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