The Misguided "Online Skills Laboratory"

While seeking to make college more affordable and accessible, the Obama administration has launched a worrisome but largely unnoticed assault upon the nation's publishers and the vibrant market in online learning. The U.S. House has approved a White House-backed provision to provide $500 million to develop free, and "freely available," online college courses.

The administration is pushing forward with its trademark certitude; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan humbly suggested last week that the administration's American Graduation Initiative is the 21st century counterpart to Abraham Lincoln's Morrill Act and to the landmark post-World War II GI Bill.

Duncan is particularly enamored with the $500 million to develop the "Online Skills Laboratory," in which the federal government will "invite" colleges, publishers and "other institutions" to create online courses for Uncle Sam in a variety of unspecified areas. The feds will then make the courses freely available and encourage institutions of higher education to offer credit for them.

If Duncan's claim is that somehow these same providers or new providers will deliver a better-quality product when hired by Uncle Sam, he needs to make that case.

The proposal is both short-sighted and destructive. It's one thing to encourage providers to develop "open source" wares and to promote measures that encourage publishers, colleges and universities to reduce costs and save students money. But it's another thing entirely for the federal government to use taxpayer dollars to provide services that will undercut those offered by self-sustaining private enterprises.

First off, it's not clear what problem the administration hopes to solve. Online courses already exist and are offered by an array of publishers and public and private institutions. Access to online courses is hardly an issue. Online enrollment grew from 1.6 million students in 2002 to 3.9 million in 2007, when the figure equaled more than 20 percent of total enrollment at all U.S. degree-granting institutions. U.S. News and World Report reports that nearly 1,000 higher education institutions provide distance learning. For-profit online providers reported that online enrollment was up more than 25 percent from summer 2008 to 2009.

More than half a dozen major textbook publishers, including Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, W.W. Norton & Co., and John Wiley & Sons, as well as hundreds of smaller providers, develop and distribute online educational content. To take one example, Pearson's "MyMathLab" is a self-paced customizable online course that the University of Alabama uses to teach online math to more than 10,000 students a year. Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium, says that new course development is not a "terribly high need," and "I'd rather see more of the money go into scholarships for online learning than reinventing courses that have already been invented."

Now, I'm as skeptical of big publishing as most, and make no claims for the quality of any particular product. But the point is that exactly the kinds of online courses and materials that Duncan and the House are calling for already exist. If Duncan's claim is that somehow these same providers or new providers will deliver a better-quality product when hired by Uncle Sam, he needs to make that case.

Further, if there is such urgency to act, it is hard to understand why the administration wants to launch a federally directed effort to develop new materials rather than find ways to leverage those that exist.

What is it that federal dollars will buy that isn't already available? As Tom Allen, CEO of the Association of American Publishers, has noted, "State-of-the-art, market tested and validated educational materials are already available and in use by millions of students at virtually every public and private college campus in America . . . Why spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the government to attempt to replicate products that already exist?" Sure, Allen is an interested party here, but that doesn't make the observation any less true.

If the administration is concerned about cost, cost-cutting new providers like StraighterLine illustrate that the efficiencies created by new technologies and delivery systems are already allowing some providers to start offering dramatically cheaper instruction.

Today, the chokepoint is often not the lack of existing online courses or materials but the fact that colleges and universities offer them at prices that approximate those charged to students enrolled in more costly traditional instruction. Of course, this stickiness in price has been due to credentialing and regulatory practices that impede the emergence of low-cost entrants; state-funded institutions that use new e-learning students to cross-subsidize other units; and proprietary operators that have happily responded to this cozy arrangement by competing on convenience rather than price.

Rather than addressing the anti-competitive arrangements and cross-subsidies that have led colleges to profiteer at the expense of students, the administration is pushing to spend half a billion dollars to procure online courses that will be offered free of charge to all comers, both in the U.S. and overseas. The proposal would hide true program costs from both student and taxpayer.

This is sensible only if one assumes that federal contracting and oversight ensure better outcomes than market transactions. But this is the same administration that explains that the "public option" is desirable in health care precisely because it believes in market competition. Moreover, if experience with online education during the past decade is any guide, there is little reason to believe that colleges and universities would actually pass cost savings produced by taxpayer-funded courses on to students.

The measure also manages to raise concerns about academic freedom and stifling critical research and development.

Federal law has long buttressed academic freedom and intellectual pluralism by prohibiting the U.S. Department of Education from exercising control over "curriculum, program of instruction . . . text books, or other educational materials by any educational institution." The administration would suddenly have the department funding the creation and dissemination of entire courses. Once the U.S. Department of Education is sponsoring a freely available course financed with taxpayer funds, it will be difficult for all but the most expensive or distinctive institutions or providers to justify paying for an alternative offering. For the huge swath of the curriculum represented by general and introductory courses, it is not a stretch to imagine that federally-sponsored courses would become a de facto national college curriculum.

As for R&D and market innovation, Duncan's proposal is a profoundly short-term solution. If the federal government started freely offering large swaths of cell phone service, it would be difficult for providers to retain customers. The result would be the gradual erosion of the market place and reduced investment in new products or services. Short-term savings would be gained at the cost of gutting the sector's ability to keep innovating and improving.

The administration and Congress might want to think twice about undercutting publishing and computer software when the copyright sector, which employs more than five million people, is already wrestling with intellectual piracy and declining print sales.

For those who think that the U.S. Department of Education can develop instructional programs and identify promising innovations and opportunities more effectively and efficiently than the messy market place, the "Online Skills Laboratory" must sound like a swell idea. For those who believe that functioning markets generally yield better outcomes than state-directed enterprises, it is a very troubling development.

Even as his administration has become the majority shareholder in General Motors, appointed a "pay czar" to oversee compensation at the nation's major banks, and endorsed a "public option" to ensure "competition" in a health care market already populated by more than 2,000 insurers, President Obama has taken pains to explain that he is acting reluctantly and only under duress--and that, as he told Fortune magazine last year, he continues to be the same "pro-market guy . . . I always have been."

The president explained at the time, "I still believe that the business of America is business. But what I also think is that with all that power . . . comes some responsibilities--to not game the system, to not oppose increased transparency in the market place, to not oppose fiscally prudent measures to balance our budget." If the president meant what he said, it is hard to fathom why his administration is moving to undermine productive enterprises, obscure price mechanisms, and spending a half-billion dollars to replicate existing products.

If the president is a "pro-market guy," this would be a good time to show it. Does he really want to add chief of the national "Online Skills Laboratory" to his list of burdens?

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

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