Paul L. Caron

Friday, June 14, 2013

Winn: MOOCs Are Overhyped

WinnIn response to yesterday's post, Jane K. Winn (University of Washington), my colleague on the CALI Board of Directors, graciously agreed to publish this op-ed on TaxProf Blog: MOOCs Are Over-Hyped: Why Assume Faculty Aren’t Smart Enough to Adapt to Changing Conditions?:

Phillip Schrag (Georgetown) has just published a jeremiad on SSRN about the grim future of legal education, highlighting the emergence of MOOCs as a challenge to traditional law schools. While I agree that all US faculty members in higher education need to redouble our commitment to improving learning outcomes and looking for ways to reduce the price that our students pay for their of education, I don’t think Schrag’s hyperbole is very well informed or helpful. Legal education in particular has operated for too long like a cartel that competed only by offering more services and never lowering prices. Combined with subsidized student loans, that’s how we got into this mess. Schrag seems to be suggesting that the alternative to that cartel mentality is lowering quality which is clearly false--competing by offering better value is another option. The most obvious application for technological innovations like MOOCs is improving the quality of human-mediated instruction in existing institutions, not lowering the quality of instruction in existing institutions, or the creation of competing for-profit machine-mediated instructional institutions. Here are some specific points of disagreement I have with his analysis (quoting from his abstract): 

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have spread across the landscape of higher education like an invasive plant species.

I disagree.  I think that a few experiments are getting a lot of media coverage at the moment, but this is all going to die down very fast as soon as everyone starts focusing on the dropout rate for MOOCS which is 90% or more of the people who sign up for them.  As Schrag concedes in the paper, lot of the breathless media coverage emphasizes the starting numbers and fails to disclose the completion numbers.  This is all going to look like the furor over Second Life (a virtual reality game) or Segways (which didn’t replace cars or bikes after all) in a few years.

Almost all students learn best when there is another human being participating in their learning.  Full stop, end of discussion. This is why “flipping the classroom” works so well—it focuses class time on engaged faculty-student interaction, leaving MOOC-like content to the out-of-class time.

Although few people had heard of MOOCs before 2012, these internet-based courses, taught by university professors, are now routinely offered simultaneously to tens of thousands or in some cases, hundreds of thousands of people.

Distance learning has been slowly growing in popularity over the last 30-40 years (delivered by cable TV and public broadcasting and videocassette before the Internet), Schrag concedes in the paper that this is nothing new.  I didn’t notice any evidence from Schrag’s paper that he has either taught or studied in a distance education course.  I taught internet-only online courses in the 1990s but gave it up when it became obvious that either you spend just as much time teaching as you would with a live class, or you spend 10-100 times as much time preparing really helpful online materials to replace human interaction, which I didn’t want to do (but that is what CALI does).  I recently took an internet-only course from my local community college on a topic related to the Sales Law course I teach (supply chain management).  The teacher spent a lot of time giving feedback, there was a lot of homework, it was like a traditional course.  Schrag is clearly correct that improvements in machine scoring of student work may be a major technological advance that can help improve the quality of distance education, but MOOCs generally are much more similar to their predecessors than a lot of the media hype recognizes. 

Most MOOCs are still provided free of charge, but the two companies and one non-profit entity that promote MOOCs and provide the software have recently created partnerships with institutions of higher education in order to realize substantial revenues by offering MOOCs for academic credit to tuition-paying students at colleges and universities.

Four out five new businesses fail in the bricks and mortar world, the failure rate is higher for online enterprises. If these 3 organizations are all still around in 10 years, the odds are overwhelming that they will have radically changed their business model because I am pretty sure the MOOC delivery business model is going to be a loser.  Remember the companies that all went bust after it became obvious that they couldn’t undercut traditional merchants’ prices, pay shipping costs, pay for TV ads to drive traffic to their sites, and stay in business after the venture capital funds ran out?

By contrast, Khan Academy content is being used to help teachers improve the quality of time they spend with students, not replacing or downgrading teachers, so I’d be prepared to bet money that it will thrive and prosper.

As Schrag notes in his paper, the faculty at San Jose State University Philosophy Department did a good job of explaining why purchased content like MOOCs is probably much less relevant than it might appear in their open letter to Michael Sandel explaining why they would not be using his video lectures that their university administration had recently purchased:

"Despite resistance from professors at some institutions, MOOCs for credit are proliferating rapidly. This development has great significance for the future of legal education, because most law schools are experiencing an economic crisis and are searching for ways to cut costs and lower tuition so that they can fill their classes and remain viable. Already, some law schools are offering academic credit for distance learning, within limits permitted by the Section of Legal Education of the American Bar Association — limits that may soon be relaxed."

UK law schools have been offering Internet only LLMs for more than a decade, and US business schools offer business law courses internet-only.  The US legal accreditation bodies should study those models and update their accreditation rules to permit pedagogically valid distance learning.  MBA accreditation rules were relaxed in the 1990s to permit distance education, and as far as I know the main delivery model that emerged is hybrid online/offline offerings with real faculty, not poorly paid lecturers supporting MOOC-like content.  For UK LLM programs, I bet the students in bricks and mortar UK LLM programs outnumber the internet only students by more than 100 to 1.

Within ten years, MOOCs could replace traditional law school classes altogether, except at a few elite law schools that produce lawyers to serve large corporations and wealthy individuals.

Hogwash.  We do not all order groceries on the Internet and the traditional grocery stores have not all gone out of business like everyone predicted during the dotcom bubble.

However, most law schools might survive by embracing rather than resisting internet-based learning. They could cut costs by reducing faculty and staff positions, using MOOCs for the delivery of most of the legal information that students need, hiring part-time lawyers to help students with exercises to supplement the MOOCs, and concentrating the remaining full-time faculty on first-semester offerings, writing seminars, and clinics. Sadly, the result will be a watered-down form of legal education compared to the three years of interactive experiences that law schools have offered students for the last century. But it may be the only way in which most law schools can survive.

This conclusion assumes that current law faculty are only smart enough to deliver curriculum in its current form, and too dumb to adapt to changing conditions.  If we accept the challenge of learning to do more with less, then we can improve student learning outcomes, lower our costs and preserve our jobs in something quite similar to their current form, although overall staffing might be leaner in the future.

Faculty-student ratios apparently do not play a major role in US News rankings, and law school staffing could be considerably leaner if the 2L/3L curriculum were rationalized.

I suspect the real innovations are going to start coming in expensive 3rd & 4th quartile law schools when the faculty members there realize that their law school may close. Bill Henderson did a good job of explaining the challenges they face in in his op-ed piece styled as advice to a university president with a money-losing law school:

It is usually pretty hard to find the motivation to make profound institutional changes without a genuine sense of crisis.

After I shared some of the above comments with colleagues at my law school, I got the following follow-up questions:

Do you think law schools have the ability to achieve the goal of more for less?

I study the impact of globalization on business.  In the last 30 years, pretty much all American businesses that haven’t gone bankrupt and don’t provide “truly local” services (lawn mowing, hair cutting, home health aide) have been forced to learn to do more with less. If law professors can’t do it, then we aren’t as smart as business managers.  I assume we are.

How would you…provide a superior legal education for $20,000/year in student tuition?

Faculty will have to be more accountable about how their time and effort translate into improved student learning outcomes.  Lawyers record their work by hours and have to justify their productivity to their clients.  If law professors can’t do that, then we aren’t as smart as attorneys in practice.  I assume we are.

 It would go a lot faster if faculty committed to rethinking what they do from the bottom up.  Without the tenure system, anyone who didn’t want to participate could either find another line of work or retire.  Tenure complicates the analysis.  I have always assumed tenure would be abolished during my working life because it creates so many perverse incentives.  Extremely strong for-cause dismissal rules and longer term contracts would deliver 99% of the benefits of tenure and remove most of the abuses.  I have always tried to act as a faculty member as though I didn’t have tenure. 

Does [legal education reform] include subsidies from other revenue generating enterprises, or is it truly self-sustaining?

I assume it would be self-sustaining.  I’m not aware of a lot of unmet market opportunities for legal instruction that we could capture without taking our focus off the main challenge--reorganizing to become more efficient at our core mission.

What would the smart faculty do to adapt that does not cannibalize students/revenue from other law schools?

Develop a legal education model to train lawyers to serve the 70% of Americans in between the poor and the rich who are largely priced out of the current market for legal services?  There’s huge unmet demand for legal services in the US, but the current organization of the legal profession encourages competing by adding more features, not by lowering the price.

Will scholarship continue to be relevant?  Does it contribute to educational outcomes substantially enough to have remain work paying faculty for?

The amount of time faculty spend on “scholarship” has increased enormously in recent decades as part of the chasing rankings/cartel behavior.  One way to remedy this would be to recognize the reorganization of existing law school courses to make them pedagogically more effective as a valid alternative to publishing articles that are mostly unread anyway. I’m sure the faculty as a collegial body could come up with other ideas for encouraging faculty to justify more rigorously the time they spend on teaching and scholarship related activities.

If tenure is abolished, does lack of scholarship remain part of the assessment framework?  Poor teaching?  No service?  In other words, by removing tenure, you force the question of whether it is reasonable to have a faculty with some heavy scholars, some heavy teachers, etc., but not requiring everyone to be a jack-of-all-trades?

I’m not claiming to have any answers at this level of detail.  I’m saying I am completely confident that law school faculties as collegial bodies can come up with good solutions to these problems if we first committed ourselves to looking for them.  I personally am going to be trying “team-based learning” in my classes in 2013-2014, that seems to me to be a very promising new direction for improving learning outcomes.  I think that’s a good example of the kind of faculty-led innovation that can help us move beyond cartel thinking and reduce the cost of quality education.

More fundamentally, if the salaries of lawyers drop to serve the unmet needs, will that have an effect on who is attracted to law and to law schools?  Notably, if lawyers graduating from UWLS make an average of $60K leaving school, what would the advantage be of the premium $20K/year product over the $5k/year MOOC Law? Would we add enough value over a MOOC to warrant the differential?

If someone tried to offer a MOOC law school and set the tuition at $5K, it would cost millions of dollars to develop or it would fail.  Most students will not pay $5K a year for machine-mediated MOOC education if bricks and mortar law schools reorganize to deliver better learning outcomes.  NB Concord Law School (now owned by Kaplan) tuition is $10,000 a year, not $5,000, and the JD takes 4 years.

With online instruction, you either pay for humans to work with basic content or you pay a ton of money up front to develop quality content, it is a tradeoff.  Improvements in machine-scoring of student performance is an important technological advance on the big up-front development cost side that may significantly lower delivery costs on the back end, but I don’t believe it really addresses the fundamental need for human engagement in learning.  That’s why the most obvious application for these technological innovations is improving the quality of human-mediated instruction in existing institutions, not lowering the quality of instruction in existing institutions, or the creation of competing for-profit machine-mediated instructional institutions.

Legal Education | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Winn: MOOCs Are Overhyped:


If no one is reading your scholarship, then you're not producing very good scholarship.

A lot of scholarship is widely read, cited, and influential.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 15, 2013 5:43:49 AM