Sunday, December 02, 2012

MOOCs and universities - a tragedy of the commons in reverse?

(This is an idealistic and probably not-very-well-thought-out post.  Comments and critiques are welcome.)

Ecologists often refer to the 'tragedy of the commons', the destruction of a shared resource due to uncontrolled overexploitation by individuals.  The concept was popularized by Garrett Hardin; he described it here
"The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive component.
1. The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly + 1.
2. The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-­making herdsman is only a fraction of - 1.
Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit -- in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all."
The outcome is destruction of the commons by overgrazing, and the unsavory solution is land-privatization, with individual landowners fencing off the land they graze.  Each privately fenced pasture has only a limited carrying capacity, but private ownership provides the incentive to ensure that its capacity is not exceeded, thus preventing its degradation by overgrazing.  The same problem is now being seen in the world's oceans, with local restrictions on fishing seen as the only practical solution to the destruction of shared fish stocks by overfishing.

I'm now wondering if the introduction of MOOCs into the higher education ecosystem might have the opposite effect - converting what used to be private resources for the elite into a shared commons of learning.

Under the current system of higher education, each university is a private stock of learning, with access available only to those who pay the tuition and meet the entrance requirements.  This has been inevitable because education can only be provided face-to-face to small local populations of students, and because the costs of this delivery are borne by the individual universities.  Most attempts at distance-learning had limited success, still needing substantial personal interaction and entailing high costs.  In ecological terms, the carrying capacity of each university is small, and tuition and enrollment limits prevent overuse.

Viewed simplistically, the major cost components of university teaching are (i) course development; (ii) course delivery, and (iii) assessment of student learning.  Course development remains expensive, but the other components have changed.  The internet greatly reduced the cost of distributing information, but the development of web-based 'learning management systems' such as Moodle and Blackboard is really what changed the economics.  These systems allow instructors to efficiently deliver information to defined groups of students, and to track the activities of the students.  Most important is their ability to carry out automated testing, where instructors design test questions that are automatically graded by the learning management system, These questions allow students to easily test their own understanding, and allow instructors to carry out formal (graded) assessment of learning progress without the need for human grading.  A further advance is the availability of software that supports peer-grading, first training students to assess the written work of fellow student, and then managing the distribution of work and recording of results.  These automated methods of evaluation reduce or eliminate the need for instructors and teaching assistants to grade student work.

Learning management systems make MOOCs possible, and MOOCs change the economics of higher education.  Once educational resources have been developed, the internet allows them to be delivered to large numbers of learners with no geographical limits and at very little cost.  Learning management systems allow students to be tracked, guided and assessed, again at a cost that's not only low but largely independent of the number of students.

Much of higher education can now exist as a global resource (very well-mixed, not patchy and local).  The 'carrying capacity' of a single MOOC (the number of students that can be taught) is very high, maybe even unlimited.  The cost to a university of providing a single MOOC is quite small, relative to its total budget.  If each of the approximately 10,000 major universities around the world were to provide just one MOOC, the learning commons would likely cover just about everything that is now taught in undergraduate programs.

Like the individual herdsmen in the tragedy of the commons, the individual universities would pay an individual cost (course development for their MOOC) and gain individual short-term benefits of their MOOC (reputation, public relations).  They would also pay a long-term cost, that of reducing the market for formal university education on which their success depends.  Like the cost of a degraded common pasture to all herdsman, this cost is experienced by ALL universities, not just those that provide MOOCs, so it is not an effective deterrent to MOOC production.

The critical difference from the tragedy of the commons is the effect on the commons (the global population of learners and MOOCs): rather than being degraded by this shared use, the commons would be enriched.

In the very long term this process might drive many universities out of business.  That might be its own kind of tragedy, but as long as the modest cost of providing individual MOOCs could be met in some other way, it would be a triumph for higher education.


Anonymous said...

Rosie - what's an MOOC?

Heather Thompson said...

Thank you for your framework. I had been pondering what it all means

Joe Smith said...

If you view the commons as the value, or additional income provided by a university degree, and not the education itself the outcome is very different.

This certificate is free to consume and all the shephards sign up online to use it. Before long the certification no longer has the economic scarcity it previously did and loses value. Then, as you say, demand for conventional universities goes down and they go out of business, damaging the commons permanantly.

This is accentuated by fee rises in many countries like the UK.

See below:

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