MIT, micromasters, and disrupting higher ed

For the past few months I’ve been taking courses with MIT’s Data, Economics, and Development micromasters program. After having completed 2/5 courses I’ve absorbed a lot of very interesting material, some of which will almost certainly be making it onto this page in the future.

Beyond the content, though, what impresses me most is that MIT is offering these courses on an audit basis to anyone who wants to try them, with a potential path to actually attending the school and earning a full masters. Even more fascinating is that there are no set academic prerequisites for entering the full masters program beyond completing the micromasters online. Of course, not all applicants who go through the MM will be accepted, but the raw idea is worth digging into.

MOOCs are edging us towards a path to college admissions that removes significant guesswork from both sides of the equation. On the institution’s side the need for credentials to enter universities is based on the idea that past performance is a reliable indicator of future results; on the student’s side, the assumption is that acceptance is a fairly reliable indicator that the university approximately matches their capabilities. Students may also operate under the assumption that they will find the coursework useful in some way, that they will be interested in their chosen field, and that they won’t for some reason be inspired to drop out.

Of course, past performance is never a guarantee (thanks, Nassim Taleb), but past performance in a different environment is still less of a guarantee. People drop out or fail because they are either poorly matched or because the reality did not meet their expectations in some way. Under MITs system, presenting the material at the actual level of difficulty a student would encounter in the full program, and with some financial commitment (100-1000 dollars, dependent on income, if you choose to take the micromasters track rather than simply auditing, which is free) essentially corrects the information asymmetry.

On the university side, it gets a lot easier to select students that you know will fit you at an academic, and to some extent, a cultural level, without doing a lot of research into their performance in regional spelling bees. This could serve to significantly reduce the time spent per student in the admissions office. In short, MIT knows how you’re doing in their course, regardless of past performance, and the student has a fairly good idea of what they’re getting into.

In the rosiest view, I could see this system correcting for a lot of issues that currently plague higher education. Low to no cost auditing with light credentialling attached would be a way to admit students with real ability who don’t have the formal paperwork in hand. It might improve dropout rates by exposing students to the product before they make the decision to invest. It would certainly help universities by creating a self-selection process based on actual observed performance rather than educated guesswork, making admissions into less of a bureaucratic necessity and more of a competitive process. It could reduce administrative overhead in the long run, create richer technological integration in a stubbornly old-fashioned higher education system, and possibly create a clearer market for universities based on instruction and utility rather than experiences and amenities, which tend to be pushed in promotional materials.

Nonetheless, as Tyler Cown laments in The Complacent Class, universities are already bubbles of like-minded, like-backgrounded individuals. This could get better with self-selection opening up admissions to students who would not traditionally be able to enter, but it might also become worse as the courses will perhaps tend to promote over-matching, appealing to those with a certain worldview and background. Something like Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy project would have to figure into the creation of these courses in order to ensure that diversity in all respects would continue to thrive and that we wouldn’t self-select into even more polarized groups than we already do.

Additionally, those without the time or access to participate would be at a disadvantage, as they wouldn’t be able to rely on the relatively less labor-intensive traditional admissions process to make their transition at the speed they need to. Of course, optimizing for university admissions already tends to be a process that starts around middle school and intensifies throughout high school. Optimistically, self-selection playing a role in the admission process would enable those without the resources to invest in resume-building activities to prove their skills; pessimistically, it would become one more hoop for already-disadvantaged students to jump through. That’s why if this was to be implemented in any form it would need to be clearly separated from other criteria, or even, in a very libertarian implementation of the idea, used as the only criteria to ensure that it didn’t become simply another time suck or long-form standardized test weighing down admissions even more.

A host of other pros and cons exist–I am inclined to lean strongly towards the pros; done right, this could reduce a lot of costs, both financial and social, on both sides. I think in the future we will be seeing a lot more of this trend being built into MOOCs; I doubt they will continue to exist solely as nice, cheap ways for smart people to get smarter. They’ll be turned towards credentialling and program integration eventually, which I think will vastly improve the quality of the market. And of course, at this stage in the existence of the traditional university, disruption in any form that raises efficiency and lowers costs is welcome.