Classroom Technology Opinion

MOOC vs. MOAB (Mother of all Baumols)

By Tom Vander Ark — November 12, 2012 4 min read
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Baumol is trending.

You’ve probably seen William J. Baumol‘s book, The Cost Disease, or you’ve read an Inside HigherEd column about how education and health care are labor intensive and have not seen the same kind of productivity gains as other sectors. Perhaps you heard Paul Hill and Marguerite Rosa talk about Baumol’s disease, “The combination of rising costs and stagnant productivity are major problems in an environment where many children are not learning the skills they need and education is now not likely to receive sustained increases in public funding.”

Dr. Matthew Ladner of Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) thinks education is Mother of All Baumols (MOAB). But 2012 is the year of the Massively Open Online Course (MOOC)--a possible solution to the MOAB.

More broadly Dean Dad sees “really exciting prospects offered by Big Data and MOOCs and, yes, outcomes assessment, in helping us allocate human intervention most effectively.”

When considering K-12, Hill and Roza suggest five steps including considering strategies in other sectors, looking at learning systems outside of schools, considering cost drivers, prototyping new models, and creating policies that encourage productivity.

In The World is Open, published last year, Curtis Bonk suggested we had reached a point where anyone can learn anything from anyone else at any time, which suggests the potential for extremely high learning productivity. Mark Kleiman predicts, “The future of education is for students to educate themselves, individually and in groups, with the help of computers, networks of computers, recorded media (including, of course, the greatest educational innovation of all, the printed book), and the skilled facilitation of a relatively small number of live helpers.

If Mark and Curtis are half right, why do we continue to see double digit cost increases in higher ed? Why did the cost of K-12 grow steadily until the Great Recession?

What bounds productivity?

Bonk is right, it’s easier to learn stuff in a world with Wikipedia, Khan Academy, and MOOCs. But it’s not exactly new. An eager student 40 years ago could have picked up The Feynman Lectures on Physics. What factors will bound possible productivity gains? I think there are three major “cost disease” variables:

  1. The custodial aspect of school: Most parents value having a place to sent students during the day. This variable is very strong in elementary school but it plays a role all the way through college; it’s nice to get junior out of the house. For preschool and elementary students this suggests a minimum level of supervision and care not likely to vary no matter how much technology you throw at it. For college students, it implies a dorm, a student union, and a health club--an example of competition actually increasing the cost of attendance as colleges strive to have the most luxurious accommodations.
  2. The social aspect of school: The job school fulfills for students is typically social. We may think it’s important for them to prepare for college and careers, but their aims are typically more immediate--school is a place to connect, to participate in activities. The only rationale for a $100 million high school is a competitive football team; big schools face a variety of diseconomies of scale.
  3. The non-cognitive aspects of school: Success in school is a complicated formula of relationship and self-regulation, motivation and management, intellect and initiative. Teachers have a lot to do with developing, maintaining, and channeling student engagement. On the flip side, the more risk factors a young person brings to school, the stronger the support systems required for success.

In general, these three factors are really strong for young students. Other than the 4 percent (eventually 10 percent) of students educated at home, they require a full complement of staff of school staff and do not offering much productivity potential (beyond a Rocketship Education-like blend).

For older students, there are more options for prepared and motivated students up to an including sampling topics of interest in expert taught MOOCs. With all the new models of the last two years, we can begin to imagine the DIY (do it yourself) blends Kleiman describes particularly for post-secondary learners.

We could simplify the Baumol productivity opportunity equation into a two by two matrix with maturity on one axis and motivation on the other. Lots of productivity potential exists in the high motivation-maturity quadrant. Little productivity potential exists in the low motivation-maturity quadrant. In other words, highly motivated and well support young people are ready to take advantage of Anya’s DIY U. But if we’re serious about more equitable outcomes, we need to invest in high support environments for young people in the other quadrants.

MOOCs create new opportunity for high maturity-motivation learners but they don’t address the MOAB. Blended learning with differentiated (levels) and distributed (locations) staffing does offer small productivity gains but, like Rocketship, these savings can and should be reinvested in additional learning time and supports for at-risk learners.

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