ODL, the social contract and the economic crisis.

Suddenly a social contract appears in the blogs I am reading. In “The Perfect Storm for Universities“, Popenici writes about the fact that more education does not necessary means a higher income or more change of a steady job. Bonnie Stewart states that the social contract can no longer fulfill its promises. Adding “Of course” to this sentence. Prinsloo lists the assumptions and links between Bildung, graduation and employment which are replaced by other forms of curriculum development, assessment and accreditation, as one of the major changes of 2012. 

Respecting the differences between the blogs, they all blame education for the break down of this relationship. Either the appearance of Moocs and the Internet flow of information (Stewart, Prinsloo) or the student loans, a business attitude of university administration and faculty and the arrogance of universities in general (Popenici). Or taking a quote of Christine Teelken: It seems that universities are no longer viewed as ivory towers of intellectual pursuits and truthful thoughts, but rather as enterprises driven by arrogant individuals out or capture as much money and influence as possible.

However, a contract is a two-sided agreement, depending on certain conditions. This social contract states that if the individual does his best to get explicit grades and diploma’ s, society will take care of his or her employment. One of the conditions attacked is the state of education, which is either bad or treated by ODL‘s as Moocs. Neither of them talks about the other conditions. In Europe as in the USA, there are only a few jobs available. Because of the credit- and the euro-crisis, because of the decline in competitiveness, the social contract has been broken, not necessary because of the rise in alternative sources of information and education.

If online distance learning (ODL) is not the source of the problem, perhaps they can be (part of) the solution? ODL’s, whether open educational resources aimed at teachers (reusable, remix and redistribution) or open online courses aimed at learners (and massive if successful).

In a world where income and employment decline, the access of education is limited as the example of Greece shows. Free resources and courses could help to overcome the scarcity of materials and teachers.

As one of the reasons to be involved in the production of open educational resources, the Unesco reports on the Russian Federation and China state the availability of good quality materials in distance parts of the countries, in Brazil availability over income groups is also mentioned.

Another reason for introducing ODL in a large scale in traditional education is given by Stephan Ruth. Combining different models of ODL (Mooc’s, course redesign using e-learning, virtual campus, the $10,000 degree), he concludes that e-learning can greatly decrease the costs of education. He therefore comes to a combination of models, the Export Import Model, in which the excellent universities offer open online courses and resources. Because of the restricted supply, each ODL becomes a Mooc, used by not-so excellent universities, who organize the tutoring, the discussions and exams. The not-so excellent universities pay the excellent universities a fee for the use of the materials and get an income from the students who want to get tutored, take exams and so forth.

Having some experience in developing distance education myself, I think the cost reduction is strongly depending on the amount of students. Designing and making good distance education is much more expensive than designing and giving face-to-face education. When the initial development costs are spread over more students, there will be a point after which ODL is cheaper than f2f education. However, as tutoring can not be up-scaled indefinitely, there can be an upper bending point after which the efficiency of tutoring declines and the cost reduction declines too.

Another drawback of Ruth’s approach is the division between developing and exploiting institutes, between high paying students studying on site at the excellent universities and other students studying at the not-so excellent universities. What such at division means for the social contract even when the economical crisis disappears, is not clear to me.

Mondon and Hoffstaeder give yet another view on such a division, however along the line of humanities versus natural sciences. They are afraid that online learning is in favour of hard sciences, which in their view can bet assessed by single answer questions, whereas humanities require other skills as good essay writing.

Secondly, they are afraid that students will not study humanities as the job prospects are limited; thirdly humanities are more dependent on student numbers and government grants as they find it harder to find private partners for funding their research.

Partly these worries are mirrored by the research of Teelken and the translation of this by Prinsloo, Stewart and Popenici, especially the dependency of education on market forces and efficiency, as stressed by Ruth. However, ODL, OER and Mooc’s are not the monsters depicted by Mondon and Hoffstaeder. Assessing essays, papers and other kinds of assessments are available and under construction. The fact that students in the present situation take their future job opportunities in account by choosing a curriculum is not strange given the economic situation, whereas the relation between ODL and research funding is a strange one.

When the Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, closes his home to go There and Back Again, he didn’t realize what lay ahead of him. Also it is the question if modern multimedia techniques can beat 35 years of imagination. Will free ODL’s change the world is an open question but hopefully there will be a Back Again.

Making a better World: an economic view

Last week, our former colleague, Dianne Hofenk defended her PhD-thesis at the Open University. The thesis is titled “Making a Better World” and is a research into the contribution of a special carrier towards the greening of urban distribution. Large carriers deliver goods towards the borders of the city, where smaller distributors collect these goods, combine the parties in efficient batches and deliver the goods in the city, causing the pollution to decrease and give less congestion of the roads.

Besides several complex tests on factors which influence the participation of carriers, retailers and consumers, Dr Hofenk asked the question what determines the “ Willingness to pay more” of consumers for goods which have less impact on the environment? She stated that this was an especially relevant question as it influenced the sustainability of the business model, as policy makers had stated that they were prepared to subsidize the starting costs, but that the initiative has to be self-sufficient in time. The following discussion was on how the local distributors should be financed, through an increase of prices (by the costumers) or by transferring the profits of the carriers (more efficiency) and retailers (time saving) towards the distributors.

This seemed me an intriguing question, as from the point of view of welfare economics, there appears a straightforward role for the government. The government can maximize collective welfare if the negative effect of the taxes, necessary to subsidize this initiative is below the negative effects of the congestion and the pollution. Ideally, the government should divide the tax burden over both the three stakeholders, in ratio to the perceived weight or decreased costs.

However, an anonymous reviewer made a similar remark reviewing a piece on business models, sustainability and OER. In his opinion, the task of the government in providing education, and so also Open Educational Resources, is so clearly defined. It is therefore not done to ask the question how OER-initiatives can become self-providing, or less dependent on subsidizers. As stated above, the welfare economic view is that the government should redistribute income within society as long as the positive effects of more education outweigh the costs of more education.

Open Educational Resources are assumed to have a positive influence on the national level of education and so on economic growth, as on the quality and efficiency of education as a sector. Subsidizing OER is increasing social welfare as long as the added costs of this subsidy (including disturbance costs) are lower than the added benefits of more education.

However, more and more politicians see education as an individual choice; involving a trade off between individual costs and individual benefits. The student makes a choice of when, where and what he or she will study; financing this study by himself. The choice is assumed to be a rational one, based on the earnings after finishing the study versus the costs of financing it, using the family capital, bank loans or state loans (see the UK and the Netherlands). Rationality does require full information and the absence of (monetary) restrictions. Individuals have to make an estimation of the length of the study, the possibility of work after the study, income and future changes.

In this view are state subsidies for OER-courses unadvisable. Individuals will benefit of the offered courses (increase in income), but do not pay for them (Open ER). OER-systems should be self sustainable.

So it becomes more important to show how and where OER will have positive effects on quality and accessibility of education, on economic growth and on social cohesion. The individual approach to education is flawed and underestimates the positive contribution of free education by ignoring the national effects. Only by providing corroboration to this proposition, the state can be convinced to provide a continuous financial support to OER.