The Signaling Value of MOOCs

As part of his long look at the U.S. education system, Wonkblog’s Dylan Matthews dives into the world of Massively Online Open Courses (MOOCs). He notes that there haven’t been many academic studies on MOOCs and their performance compared to traditional college classes. Can an online class really provide the same level of education as one with an in-person professor? Matthews writes:

[T]he evidence shows that MOOCs have tremendous potential, especially for math and science and professional training. But it’s too soon to say if MOOCs are well-positioned to replace universities as a whole. To show that, one would need to somehow find out how to measure learning in topics as diverse as history or French language or theoretical physics, and conduct randomized comparisons of learning outcomes in all of them.

I’m sure in the coming years we’ll know more.

Matthews continues on to point out one of the common critiques of MOOCs: their signaling problem.

Signaling is the value in broadcasting your competence to potential employers and others. Graduating from college may help you get a job not just because it taught you particular skills but also because it makes employers confident that you’re the sort of person they want to hire.

MOOCs may become as good as traditional universities at building human capital. But they have a long way to go before having the same signaling value. Taking an MIT course on edX doesn’t do as much to get you a job as actually going to MIT would.

That’s true right now, but I see no reason why it needs to be the case. The problem is that in order for employers to value MOOCs at the same level as normal courses, you need to be able to credibly signal that you’ve learned the material from the course. At traditional colleges, that signaling comes in the form of the course credit and the grade you receive. The few colleges offering MOOCs for credit require you to be enrolled in the university and take a proctored final exam. If you have to pay tuition to earn credit, that eliminates the most valuable aspect of MOOCs: their price.

The ultimate goal, then, is to offer credit to students who take just an individual online course with no enrollment in college required. Students will have to take a final exam to demonstrate proficiency in the course so that credits are not just given away, but are earned by actually learning the material. And that final exam cannot be taken at the person’s house or a coffee shop. It must be proctored to eliminate cheating. Employers aren’t going to value course credit if they know students can easily cheat on the final.

Thus, the next step is to figure out how to proctor final exams for hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. That sounds like a logistical nightmare. Except it’s eminently doable. Pearson test centers already offer a number of different exams (GMAT, GRE, etc.)  at locations throughout cities all around the country. You pay a fee to take the test and Pearson offers a testing center that is extremely secure. The same system should be employed on a much larger scale for MOOCs, allowing students to receive credit for online classes. Even more, the tests could be designed like any standardized test so that every student would receive a score and percentile and employers could easily compare all applicants. Students at traditional colleges could quickly be tempted to take these exams too as a way to demonstrate their knowledge of the course material as well.

This will require a much larger infrastructure of online courses and Pearson testing centers. It’ll take some time to develop it all, but there’s no reason that MOOCs should have a problem with signaling. Let the MOOC revolution begin!

Do Obama’s Higher Ed Reforms Have a Chance in Congress?

Jonathan Chait is pessimistic:

But the comparison raises the question of whether his higher-education agenda will repel Republicans just as his health-care agenda did. Finding ways to get the government to spend less on education sounds pretty conservative.

If you put more weight on the ideological explanation [for Republican opposition to the ACA] , then Obama’s higher-education agenda stands a chance of attracting Republican support. Republicans might even take some visceral pleasure in making their cultural enemies in the academy squeal. If you put more weight on the political explanation, then Republicans will convince themselves that Obama’s plan is evil no matter what. Republicans will find themselves believing that free-market principles require that whatever money the government spends on college access must have absolutely no conditions attached.

Josh Barro is more optimistic:

I view scorched-earth Republican opposition to health care reform as having been driven mainly by neither ideology nor animus toward the president. I think the key was a desire to protect Republican constituencies who benefit from the health policy status quo: doctors and Medicare recipients.

In the case of higher education, the constituency getting its ox gored by cost control will be college professors and administrators, hardly a fixture of Republican fundraisers or Tea Party town halls. That bodes well for bipartisan compromise on this issue.

Hmm, I want to side with Barro here, but I can’t for one big reason: Republican rejection of the Medicaid expansion. A quick refresher: Obamacare expanded Medicaid to cover all individuals with income up to 133% of the federal poverty line. Since Medicaid is a state-run program, the government agreed to cover the full costs of the expansion until 2017. From 2017 to 2020, the federal government covers 95% of the costs and thereafter it’s 90%. It’s a great deal for states. But the Supreme Court ruling last summer allowed states to opt out of the expansion. This leaves a gaping hole in Obamacare. Individuals with incomes between 100 and 133 percent of the federal poverty line will still be eligible for tax subsidies, but those with incomes below 100% of the federal poverty line who aren’t eligible for Medicaid already will not receive coverage.

Why does this matter to whether Obama’s higher ed plan has a chance of passing in Congress? Because, as Barro and Chait write, it depends on whether Republicans will immediately reject the plan out of opposition to anything President proposes or whether they will be open to it. Barro’s optimism is based on the fact that Republican opposition to Obamacare was not just pure nihilism, but was also a play to protect their favored constituencies. Except Republican rejection of the Medicaid expansion shows that it was more nihilism than anything else.

That’s because rejecting the expansion will hurt one of Republicans favored constituencies: hospitals and doctors. Obamacare discontinues Disproportionate Share (DSH) payments, which were used to offset uncompensated health care costs of the uninsured pre-Obamacare. When Obamacare expanded Medicaid, those payments became unnecessary. Medicaid would now cover everyone up to 133% of the federal poverty line so uncompensated costs would basically disappear. Thus, there was no need for DSH payments to continue. Except hospitals in states that rejected the Medicaid expansion are still going to face significant costs of treating uninsured patients and now they receive no DSH payments to recoup those expenses. That’s why hospitals have been aggressively lobbying Republican states to expand Medicaid. There’s a lot of money on the line for doctors and hospitals.

But that lobbying has proved ineffective so far. Twenty one states have already rejected the expansion with six still debating it. It’s a great deal from the federal government that allows millions of poor Americans to receive health care coverage. Even more, hospitals are crying out for the expansion. Nope, Republicans are dead set against it. No matter how much hospitals and doctors favor them, Republicans aren’t budging. Republican opposition to Obamacare is less based on protecting Republican constituencies than rejecting anything the President proposes. I don’t see Republicans treating Obama’s education proposal any differently.

Common Core Standards Still Relatively Unknown

A new poll from Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup today finds that an alarming number of parents with kids in public school have never heard of the new Common Core standards that are changing student testing throughout the country. This is a big deal. The standards have been implemented by 45 states plus the District of Columbia, though a growing political backlash could reduce that number in the near future. And yet, less than half of parents know about it:

Almost two of three Americans have never heard of the Common Core State Standards, arguably one of the most important education initiatives in decades, and most of those who say they know about the Common Core neither understand it nor embrace it.

That’s not good. A majority of parents believe that the Common Core Standards will make the U.S. less globally competitive. But it’s tough to evaluate those beliefs when “many said — erroneously — that the standards are based on a blending of state standards, that the federal government is insisting that all states adopt the standards, and that there is a plan to create standards in all academic areas.” This is a revolutionary change in American school testing and just about no one knows about it.

And it’s not like these standards were just passed yesterday. The proposal was agreed upon by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in June 2009. Four years later, parents are still unaware of it, even though new testing has been implemented. New York’s sharp drop in test scores this years was a result of them. As I noted at the time, Mayor Bloomberg should be praised for accepting the standards while knowing that he would take blame for the reduced scores. As this poll proves, parents are going to see those scores and blame the Mayor, not realizing that they are the result of a tougher, better test.

But Bloomberg is a special case. He’s no longer up for reelection and isn’t seeking higher office so the political consequences of accepting the blame is limited. Other mayors will find themselves in different situations. They will see steeper political consequences and may react by blaming the test or worse, pulling out of it. The best way to combat this is to educate the public about Common Core. At the very least, parents need to be aware of the new standards. If not, mayors are going to feel increased political pressure to withdraw from the program so that test scores rise back to their previous levels with the easier tests. That may be good politics, but it’s not good policy. Ultimately, students pay the price.