The great thing about being middle-aged is that you’ve heard it all before, and you can’t believe the rubes are falling for it all over again. Remember those heady days of 1998 and 1999, when everyone was sure that the internet changed everything, and that we were all internet millionaires-to-be or stupid suckers who didn’t clearly perceive the bright future just around the corner? Remember when we were promised the wonders of ordering groceries online? (Who ever did that more than once, anyway?) When we were assured that bricks-and-mortar stores (as they were condescendingly referred to) were soon to become like the abandoned caverns of a lost Atlantis because we’d be buying all of our stuff online?
Most of the breathless excitement was rooted in the fact that most people chose to ignore the fact that the same exact infrastructure is required to buy your books, your yoga mats, and your nephew’s birthday present at Amazon as you need to schlep to a store yourself and pick something up: petroleum, pavement, and trucks, not to mention a gazillion miles of warehouse space in repositories around North America to hold all of that not-yet-purchased stuff. And guess what? It turns out that you need bricks and mortar for those warehouses, too. And it also turns out that driving, walking, or biking to a store to evaluate the merchandise, whether it’s a new bathing suit or a bunch of parsley, and make your purchasing decisions on the spot is usually less wasteful and more efficient than having UPS deliver everything to your door (and/or return your merchandise because it doesn’t fit, doesn’t work, or doesn’t look right.)
I don’t have an M.B.A., but I don’t see any reasonable return on investment and/or savings in instructional expense either in the big MOOCs like Coursera, or in the online classes that universities are so eager to offer. The only way they could possibly save money is to offer an inferior product. I can see Coursera surviving as an updated version of those “greatest lectures” series that used to be offered on cassette or VHS tapes–the kind of thing that’s of interest to Elderhostel devotees. I just don’t see it as something that will replace a college education earned at a bricks-and-mortar university.
(The funny thing is that we skeptics are told that higher education in bricks-and-mortar institutions is the “bubble.” I’ve seen bubbles. I know from bubbles, and it’s the MOOCs that are the bubbles. Depend on it. Furthermore, ask yourself about the track record of our elites in the past decade or so. The Iraq War was a bubble. The housing boom and bust was a bubble. The next time someone offers you a free war, or a free mortgage, or a free college education, watch your wallet. Is it just a coincidence that some of the same shills for the Iraq war are now shilling online courses for the masses? It would be comical if it weren’t such a sad comment on the state of the republic.)
Remember, kids: if someone offers you something for nothing, it’s probably worth exactly that.