The education revolution – Part III: The Value Equation


This is the fourth in a series of posts about the pillars of the revolution in education. The previous posts examined the impact that technology is having on learning, and the thorny question of qualification. We now turn to the final question: value.

The value of education flows from its purpose(s)

Debates about the value of education are often fierce, and typically boil down to the question of purpose (i.e., what is the desired outcome of providing people with an education). A few usual suspects crop up in these discussions:

  • Create "well-rounded" citizens who can function in society
  • Promote critical-thinking ability
  • Provide people with useful skills (i.e., so they can get a job)
  • Develop social skills in kids and young adults
  • Give potential employers "signals" about the possible value of an employee
  • Enable upward mobility and eliminate class inequality
  • Provide an avenue to economic prosperity

All of these are valid outcomes of the educational process, although many arguments about the value of education become polarized when people assume that there can be only one answer. The approach many take to looking at education then rides on the assumed single value. A better approach is to synthesize these outcomes into two higher level classes of outcomes: societal and economic. With these two types of value, we can come up with a simple value equation for education.

The value equation

The total value of education is the sum of its societal and economic components:


There are two very important things to consider when thinking about value using the equation above:

  • All education has societal value, but it can be either positive or negative: An educated populace is generally a good thing. Education is one of the things that has allowed us to reduce poverty, improve life expectancy, raise the average quality of life, and grow as a people. All ticks in the positive-value column. Unfortunately, the benefits of education (when we think in terms of the equation above) are not always positive. Consider the highly skilled mechanical engineer who uses his education to help construct weapons of mass destruction. Some ideologies would argue this promotes peace (e.g., those based on notions of credible deterrence), but history clearly shows that in the wrong hands, such weapons inflict tremendous harm to society. Another example of a negative educational impact is the class warfare and division that results from educational disparity. As a result, it’s clear that education may not always have positive societal value (even if it provides clear economic benefit to some individuals or groups).
  • Some education possesses no intrinsic economic value: This point is the one that generates the most strident debate. In some cases, it is demonstrably true. For example, consider the retired nurse who decides to learn photography for her own enjoyment. She enjoys sharing her photos with family and friends, but she never sells her photos or uses them for anything other than personal enrichment. While this type of learning has clear societal value (e.g., family cohesion), there is no demonstrable economic value associated with it. A lack of economic value is not a bad thing; personal enrichment is important, and it benefits us. Stray outside the world of continuing education, however, and arguments about economic value become more heated. Some of the most visceral debates arise when people question whether a liberal-arts education in the modern world possesses demonstrable economic value, beyond its value to society. It’s something that many detractors of MOOCs and other online learning trot out as a concern (i.e., that vocationally focused education will kill the traditional idea that a general education has economic value). Indeed, the current higher education system benefits greatly from the notion that education and economic value are one and the same, and students are being held hostage by this erroneous assumption. The reality is that in some cases a general education does offer economic value; in others it does not. Regardless, it’s imperative to acknowledge that education is NOT intrinsically economically valuable.

Cost and value have become decoupled

The average cost of a college education has been rising steadily, and has been outpacing inflation. Public schools face simultaneous rising costs and decreasing state funding, and private schools just keep jacking up the costs. At the same time, students who graduate face an uncertain job market, where neither employment nor salaries are guaranteed. As a result, lots of people are starting to do the math, and it’s not necessarily adding up. The cost of getting an education at a four-year university is not clearly aligned with the economic value it provides to graduates; many simply cannot rationalize the suffocating debt they must entertain to get an education. Online learning in the form of MOOCs or other options provides a disruptive alternative in this cost-benefit analysis; suddenly, education becomes affordable for many. The problem comes with validation: once you’ve gotten your online education, can you get a job?

Economic value should not depend on institutional validation

A paradigm shift needs to occur in the thinking around the economic value of an education. Institutional approaches to validation (e.g., the revered four-year college degree) should not be considered a requirement for economic value. An online education (or one that is a hybrid of online and real-world) can provide economic value without this type of validation, provided that it meets several criteria:

  • Verification: It must be possible to verify that the level of achievement gained by an individual is attributable to them. This means not only verifying their identity, but also taking whatever means necessary to prevent them from cheating and gaming the system.
  • Mastery of curriculum: Students must demonstrate mastery of a curriculum (i.e., a group of courses that demonstrate broader skills when combined). This means that learning providers (whether they be schools or MOOCs) must put together groups of courses to enable students to develop a body of knowledge and skills. Skills in isolation are not sufficient to generate economic value.
  • Equivalency: There must be some means to establish equivalency between courses and learning that come from different sources. Without equivalency, it’s impossible to determine whether different curricula are representative of the same set of skills.

Bottom line: Generation of economic value is the key for online education

The total value of an educational system must include both its societal and economic values. An educational system that produces societal value without economic value cannot sustain. It is a car without an engine, and is not sufficient to foster growth, innovation, and prosperity. If online education ventures like MOOCs are to succeed, they must focus on delivering clear economic value, and they must work to reshape the assumptions people make about the value of traditional college degrees. Individual courses delivered online are not enough to generate the kind of economic value needed; their vision must be broader and bolder. The institutional approach to education can only be transformed if the alternatives that would supplant them are superior.