Thursday, February 21, 2013

Performance Funding, MOOCs, and Public/ Private Distinctions

The discourse around higher education on two key topics-- MOOCs and performance funding-- is unfortunately trending toward a generic approach to institutions.  Lumping public and private universities together is always unwise, because not only do their funding sources differ, but so do their missions and masters.

Public institutions still lean heavily on taxpayer support to provide undergraduate education, and that funding is subject to rules developed by externally, democratically controlled governance units.  They are explicitly responsible for expanding access, growing the proportion of the public that is educated at the postsecondary level.  These conditions represent both benefits and constraints to public colleges and universities.

In contrast, at private instituions tuition and endowments provide most of the resources for undergraduate education, and rules for that funding and spending are mainly developed internally.  Their missions vary widely and are internally determined.  These conditions also come with benefits and consequences, but quite different ones than those faced by public schools.

Given these differences, let's consider the following questions:

(1) What are the effects of holding both sets of institutions to the same metrics/outcomes?  They are not equally in control of the inputs critical to achieving outcomes. Also,  the impacts of achieving an outcome like graduation comes as a cost for other outcomes --such as access- for which public institutions alone are truly held responsible.

(2) What are the differential effects of implementing MOOCs in public and private schools?  They fit within institutional mission and resources in very different ways in these spaces.  Private institutions can decide to devote resources to outreach and brand recognition, but public institutions must first excel at their core efforts-- expanding access and providing high quality education at a low price point.  Private institutions must answer to their boards for such activities, while public institutions must answer to taxpayers.   As my colleague Chuck Rybak at UW-Green Bay recently asked via Twitter, "Is someone going to ask if it's ethical for state schools to offer MOOCs/coursework to non-Wisconsin taxpayers for free?"  I bet they are now...

Too often those inside higher education focus on the activities of their elite, private "peers" without acknowledging that these aren't our peers at all.  It reminds me of high school. Why are the really smart, devoted, activist kids who are great at so many things but don't invest time putting on make-up trying to pander to the whims of the homecoming kings and queens who invest in dating and shopping for cars?  Why are those capable of changing the world by helping the truly disadvantaged gain their footing instead spending their time chasing technological innovations that eventually will mainly serve to line the pockets of the already-wealthy?  And when will we stop them from imposing their technocratic "rules" on our hard work?