what’s really important about the arizona state mooc announcement
Arizona State has been in higher ed news a lot this week. The Atlantic just published a fairly fawning article on ASU’s partnership with Starbucks, featuring trenchant critiques of traditional colleges like, “The customer service is atrocious.”
Today, the news is ASU’s announcement that it will offer its entire freshman year online, through MOOCs. (Just when you thought they were dead!) Here’s the deal: ASU is partnering with EdX, the nonprofit Harvard-MIT collaboration, to produce the MOOCs. Students don’t have to apply, and they don’t have to pay in advance. But after they complete the class, if they decide they want college credit, they can pay ASU $300-600 (the final price is not set) and it will show up on a transcript indistinguishable from any other class.
Of course, people love to hate on ASU president Michael Crow. Dean Dad pointed out that Maricopa Community College, in ASU’s backyard, only charges $250 a credit and provides library access, among other amenities. John Warner focuses on the importance of the first year to student persistence, implying that disadvantaged students will be hurt. Jonathan Rees amps up the rhetoric, calling ASU the first “predator university.”
The Chronicle’s analysis focuses on what it sees as the catch: ASU’s MOOC students won’t be eligible for financial aid. Because students won’t officially enroll until after they’ve completed the MOOC, what they’ve learned is considered “prior knowledge,” making them ineligible for federal aid. ASU admits this is an obstacle, but suggested that “the university hoped to find some way to make aid possible in the future.”
What the Chronicle doesn’t point to, though, is where this road ultimately leads. There’s no way ASU is committing to this if it doesn’t see a pathway to federal aid down the road. Who among the underemployed folks ASU is targeting can cough up $600 to pay for a single course? That’s more than two weeks’ work at minimum wage.
And indeed, noises about how to solve this problem are already being made. Conversations are underway in the Senate about finding ways to give accreditation — and thus access to aid — to “nontraditional providers” like (drumroll…) EdX.
Truthfully, I’m not that worried about ASU and EdX. I think it’s going to prove hard to get the disadvantaged students they’re aiming for to finish MOOCs, even with financial aid, and even with ASU’s well-publicized innovations in data analytics. And I think that the nonprofit EdX, with its close ties to Harvard and MIT, is unlikely to launch a race to the bottom in extracting revenues from students.
But you know who would be happy to suck at the teat of the federal financial aid system? The edutech disruptors, who talk a good game about transforming higher education but will quickly enough start tranforming student loans into company profits once it’s time to raise the next round of venture capital.* When we have the opportunity to channel our financial aid dollars not only to the University of Phoenix but to the Disruptive EduBadge Academy, then we will have fully corrupted the system. The reason, if it needs to be spelled out, is that there is no reason to think that their courses will require learning, that pesky obstacle between them and those tantalizing financial aid dollars.
I’m not anti-technology, or anti-innovation. And I think traditional colleges are deeply flawed. But I am very, very much against expanding the money-laundering side of our financial aid system. And that is the coal mine into which the ASU-EdX canary is being lowered.
* I just Googled “silicon valley edutech” and got the San Francisco EduTech Meetup Group for — you can’t make this stuff up — “connecting folks who are passionate about the education space.”