I have been toying for a while with the idea of writing something about massive open online courses (MOOCs). But the more I thought about MOOCs, the more I struggled to come up with an original angle, and with something that hasn’t already been said better elsewhere.
It wasn’t until Sunday morning, which is when I usually sit down to write blog posts for the week, that I thought of something interesting enough to be shared here when I thought of one of my favorite essays in
The essay in question is by Lant Pritchett and is titled “The Policy Irrelevance of the Economics of Education.” It was published in 2009 in a Brookings collection of essays edited by Jessica Cohen and Bill Easterly titled What Works in Development?
In his essay, Pritchett explains that much of the field of economics of education is downright useless simply because it assumes that the state’s objective in providing education is to maximize social welfare. For Pritchett, this is nonsense: the state’s objective in providing education is to transmit a set of values, social norms, and behaviors it deems important for its citizens to share.
(As a thought experiment to illustrate Pritchett’s point, think of what would happen if Texas and Quebec lawmakers were no longer in charge of what is taught within their borders, and the US and Canadian federal governments were put in charge of education instead. Do you still believe education is not about transmitting values, norms, and behaviors?)
So at the risk of getting my econ degrees stripped away, my understanding is that in Pritchett’s view, public education is a formal means of social control. Given that, any theoretical framework positing that the state is out to maximize social welfare will spit out predictions that are simply useless.
The Social Capital Returns to MOOCs–or Lack Thereof
One thing I have not seen addressed anywhere in online debate about MOOCs is how they rob you of what I see as a fundamental aspect of the usual college education, i.e., the social capital returns to going to college.
This is not the same thing as the social returns to education, which are about what society at large gets from you being educated, i.e., the public good/positive externality associated with education.
Rather, this is about the social capital that you acquire by going to a brick-and-mortar college, by which I mean the emotional skills and the social network you gain by being thrown into interacting daily with roughly the same group of similarly intelligent folks for three to four years.
Sure, you get some of this in elementary, middle, and high school. But even in high school, chances are you were interacting with people who looked a whole lot like you, statistically speaking. Going to college, however, puts you into contact with people who are from very different social strata, who have opinions that may radically differ from your own, and who often grew up in cultures that are very different from your own. This is especially so in US colleges, where more often than not students have to live on campus for part of their time in college.
This in turn teaches you how to interact with people who are different from you, which is a valuable asset for most if not all employers. Most of us will eventually share the workplace with people who are different from us, and social cohesion within the workplace increases productivity.
Sure, a MOOC may teach you all about the basics of behavioral economics, but even taking part in a MOOC’s “study group” won’t teach you how to navigate tricky social situations, nor will it give you ready access to a social network of folks with whom you have shared a significant portion of your life.
Update: As luck would have it, Pritchett has a new book coming out today on education in developing countries, and about how going to school isn’t the same thing as learning.