Can MOOCs Pass the “Heft Test”?

“You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.”

So said Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, a 1997 film about a clever janitor who easily solves math problems that leave MIT students stumped.

He raised an interesting argument: Why attend college when you can read books at the library?

Why invest in formal education when you can learn the same stuff informally?

Fast forward to the new millennium, where we have heard rather more optimistic claims about how technological advances—particularly the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs)—are destined to shake the foundations of higher education.

“I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world,” journalist Thomas Friedman opines.

Friedman adds, “Nothing [besides MOOCs] has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have.”

In other words, why should higher education be restricted to scholarship recipients or the children of families that can afford to fork out $50,000 tuition bills? Why not instead rely on online classes from Udacity, Coursera, EdX, or the Khan Academy?

That online classes offer wonderful opportunities is undeniable. Just as Wikipedia represents a convenient alternative to the Encyclopedia Britannica, so too might Coursera videos represent a convenient alternative to lectures at brick-and-mortar universities.

Already, MOOCs have hired armies of talented engineers, academics, programmers, interns, and businesspeople. No doubt some entrepreneurs will make millions by helping professors to teach millions. And perhaps the competition posed by MOOCs will force traditional four-year colleges to adapt. If these marketplace forces lead to long-overdue tuition cuts, students will no doubt be better off.

But will MOOCs kill the traditional university? That is hard to see.

Distance learning has existed for centuries. Yet, the University of London International Programmes, established in 1858, did not lead to the death of venerable British universities like Cambridge, Oxford, or St. Andrews. In more recent years, the proliferation of online diplomas has dampened, but not destroyed, the demand for traditional four-year college degrees.

Perhaps it is because technological advances cause institutions to adapt, not die. How many kindergartens were shuttered because four-year-olds learnt the alphabet from Sesame Street? How many gyms were shuttered because forty-year-old soccer moms watched Denise Austin workout videos? How many churches were shuttered because evangelicals watched The 700 Club?

Educational institutions may prove as resilient as kindergartens, gyms, and churches. No doubt MOOCs will offer learning opportunities to millions, especially in the Third World. But for MOOCs to develop as a serious alternative to brick-and-mortar universities, MOOCs must attain attributes that enable them to compete with the assets of traditional universities: longstanding reputations, resources, and credentials.

The key is for MOOCs to find a way to pass the “heft test”: If they issue diplomas, would those pieces of paper be taken seriously?

Traditional universities generally pass the “heft test” and for good reason: Their degrees are difficult to earn. To get admitted into a good U.S. college, one must jump through multiple hoops by securing strong grades, SAT scores, extracurricular experiences, and teachers’ recommendations. And although the university system doesn’t fully measure applicants’ creativity, intelligence, or love for learning, it nonetheless results in diplomas being granted to students who have the discipline to sit through college and endure its institutional inconveniences: office hours, proctored exams, problem sets, research papers, compulsory courses, required readings, and three-hour lectures.

Think about the employer who wants to hire one of two candidates for a $100,000-per-year engineering job. The first candidate is an MIT graduate with a 4.0 GPA in Mechanical Engineering, while the second candidate is a kid who says, “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for free from Wikipedia and MOOCs.”

Which candidate would the employer hire?

The college graduate is the safe choice. He’s been institutionally vetted. He’s paid his dues to the system. He’s smart—at least in a conventional sense.

The second candidate is a little riskier. How many employers would roll the dice on the chance that the kid might turn out to be a self-motivated genius, rather than a lazy bum who avoided attending a traditional university because he preferred to play Halo 2?

The rise of MOOCs is a positive development that will cut the costs of education. But will MOOCs supplant traditional universities? It might take a little while.

Chris Seck is a 3L. His column runs every other Monday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.