Many of us mid-career workers are racing to update our skills. Beyond the immediate recession, we can see that companies are less and less interested in providing long-term employment. New technologies quickly render experience obsolete. And a lot of white-collar industries (finance, real estate, and, ahem, media) look like they’ll be smaller and less lucrative even after the recovery comes. But going back to school is tough once you have a mortgage and kids.
In my MONEY magazine column this month, I spot a glimmer of hope in “open source” online education. Some of the world’s best schools — Yale, Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, Carnegie Mellon and even the Indian Institutes of Technology — are posting free course materials and lectures online. They’re not a bad way to get up to speed on certain subjects, but they don’t yet help you get any credentials to signal to employers that you’ve really learned the stuff. My column speculates a bit on how that gap might be bridged, particularly for professionals who have already gone to college and don’t need a full master’s degree.
Since I wrote that, the The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a more extensive look at just this issue. And it reports some discouraging news: With university budgets squeezed by the recession, the schools at the forefront of open education may be scaling back their efforts. And many of the schools that have provided the richest material are probably going to be the most cautious about providing credentials:
For elite universities, the sustainability struggle points to a paradox of opening access. If they do grant credentials, perhaps even a certificate, could that dilute their brands?
“Given that exclusivity has come to be seen by some as a question of how many students a university can turn away, I don’t see what’s going to make the selective universities increase their appetite for risking their brands by offering credits for online versions of core undergraduate courses,” says Roger C. Schonfeld, research manager at Ithaka S+R, a nonprofit group focused on technology in higher education that is studying online courseware.
Yale, MIT and other schools. have already done an important public service by proving these materials. I hope they’ll go further. I get the “brand” problem, but it’s worth remembering that (most) universities aren’t businesses. I wish — probably in vain — that more top schools would regard expanding access as a bigger part of their public mission. But if anything, as the education policy writer Kevin Carey notes in this provocative piece, the trends point in the other direction. Turning more people away has become an essential part the “business model” of many schools, including some flagship public colleges. It would be tragic if the recession only served to reinforce this.