What Online Education Shares with IKEA
I’m currently moving into a bigger apartment. The total square footage of the new location is approximately twice that of where I’m currently staying. As a result, I need (read: want) more furniture. And so my girlfriend and I have been scouring Craigslist for good finds. For anything we can’t find second-hand though, there’s a 99% chance we’ll pick it up at IKEA.
For pieces that are aesthetically pleasing and eerily cheap, IKEA is tough to beat. Of course, part of this is made possible by leveraging its size to negotiate lower material (and labor) costs, as well as using lesser materials than its upscale competitors like Ethan Allen. Another large part comes from shifting the burden of assembly to the customer.
And IKEA has done such a good job of marketing the experience–going to the store, picking out furniture from imaginary people’s rooms, getting lunch, and picking up the cataloged parts from the warehouse at the end–that having to build the product yourself is just another part of being a classy but frugal, do-it-yourself (but not really) young sophisticate.
The whole thing can leave you feeling so empowered that you barely remember the headache of Allen wrenching together two pieces of painted particle board that have absolutely no business being perpendicularly connected to one another.
Having spent some time on Craigslist though, I can tell you that plenty of people are content to give up and just try and re-sell their re-packaged project. And having owned a fair amount of IKEA furniture myself, I can tell you firsthand that the experience is just as likely to end in tears (a broken bed, a wobbly table) as it is years of stylish and dependable service.
Online education has a similar problem. Sometimes it works great, a lot of times it doesn’t, and in far too many cases it ends in complete failure, with the student having gained very little despite having spent a whole lot.
Reihan Salam explores two growing trends in higher education. The first is the increasing the number of people who attend college, including many students who may have already struggled just to finish high school. The second is the pressure for public universities, community colleges, and for-profit programs to make education less labor intensive. As Salam explains,
At the same time that the higher education sector is taking on tougher-to-teach students, it has aimed to use labor less intensively. Elite liberal arts colleges that offered a great deal of personal attention and hand-holding gave rise to large land grant universities that offered somewhat less personal attention and hand-holding. State schools, in turn, gave rise to community colleges, which offer still less of both, which in turn left room for for-profit higher education institutions that eagerly recruit students with minimal preparation for college-level coursework while offering them hardly any personal attention or hand-holding at all. With each step, higher education has in a sense become more inclusive. Yet with each step, the institutions in question also see a higher attrition rate.
One thing that I think is worth pointing out, and which is illustrated (I hope) by the extended IKEA anecdote, is that higher education isn’t aiming to “use labor less intensively” so much as it’s trying to shift the labor costs off of itself and back onto the students.
Which should be obvious when we talk about those being best served by MOOCs and other university 2.0 schemes as the students who are already extremely motivated, hard working, and well disciplined. Of course there the ones who should be best served (and in some cases are the only ones served)–they’re the ones most willing to except the labor being pushed onto them in exchange for “cheaper” tuition. (Is it really cheaper if the product you’re getting is also inferior?)
Just like the student whose dorm room is decked out with IKEA furniture, the advantage of being able to DIY isn’t going to be worth the savings if you aren’t willing and/or able to actually DIY. For every person that’s gotten lazy and impatient when it comes to assembling a MALM bed frame, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
[Image taken from a catalog ad for IKEA dorm room furnishings]