On MOOCs and moats at the modern university

The travel barriers presented by the  coronavirus present academic administrators at schools that have come to depend on large international enrolments an opportunity. The opportunity is the political cover of exigent circumstances to force otherwise resistant and unsuspecting academic staff to translate their classes into a format that enables and facilitates distance learning. And once everything is digitised and presented asynchronously, it is a small step to scaling up to a MOOC – a massive open online course and scaling down the number of instructors. 


Whether we actually value the in-class experience is soon to be tested. The presumption appears to be we don’t. We are told a Learning Management System and online chat rooms and videoconferencing can replace real-time in person discussions. Even if it is not as good, it is good enough.

Honestly I am not clear why staff have not already (i.e. hundreds of years ago) been replaced by books, I suppose the tradition of lectures dies hard. Certainly many if not most subjects can be adequately covered in text. The university provides many valuable experiences but most are out of classroom. And if you believe signalling theory, the greatest value for many if not most students is the granting of the diploma, not the successful conveyance of knowledge and analysis skills the diploma purports to signify. 

Which will be the first major traditional university to go entirely, or majority, virtual? Right now rankings and thus enrolments for prestige or credential-seeking international students has kept the numbers of academic staff what they are, as student / staff ratios factor into rankings. But the people with dollar signs in their eyes have to look at costs and the potential to hugely increase enrolment, (even at a monetary discount) perhaps under the phrasing of “democratization of education” as a source of increased profit. And if your university doesn’t go downmarket someone else’s will, leaving yours  overstaffed with huge stranded assets. 

Modern universities serve multiple purposes. They not only are in (1) the business of knowledge, skills, and diplomas, and (2) the business of prestige, and (3) the business of gathering and sorting young adults to forge new generations, (and entertaining those young adults with sports in the case of US unis), they are also (4) an immigration pathway. Perhaps those non-marketed businesses, moats in the feudalistic language of Warren Buffett’s business analysts, are what holds the physicality of the traditional 11th century university in place and keeps the center holding nearly a millennium later.