The MOOC takeover?

Massive, Open, Online Courses (or MOOCs) are the new big thing in higher education, making waves in the media, legislature, and the blogosphere (including two blogs that this blog follows: satyagraha and unemployedphilosopher). How will this disruptive innovation transform universities?

MOOCs (rhyme with “nukes”) are freely available online video lessons provided by big name universities (e.g., MIT OpenCourseWare), spinoffs from universities (e.g., Udacity), and outside entrepreneurs (e.g., Khan Academy). The content is available for anybody with internet access. MOOCs are free both in terms of access and cost (although some offer paid unit transfer to traditional universities).

With MOOCs, more people have better access to excellent lectures. They can repeat lectures, focusing only on those parts they still do not understand. Motivated people can learn outside the rigidly structured university, accessing relevant content on their own time and initiative. MOOCs will make it easier for working adults to stay current and for curious people to soak up information. The only limitation is the time and energy they have available.

Might MOOCs even become the new standard model of higher education for fresh high school graduates?

While it is impossible to predict the future, there are some significant barriers to the MOOC takeover. Few people can toil on their own initiative to complete years of study with little or no support from peers and professors. Universities bring together people who are enthusiastic to learn; peers exert pressure on each other to stay motivated. With MOOCs, there is no such support; the strongest influences are those (mostly non-academic influences) near the home. This puts many students, especially first-generation students, at greater risk of failing to get on a college education.

Even if students are sufficiently motivated, they seldom know what they need to study. A student could study for ten years and still not acquire the knowledge needed to do meaningful work in an area of study (but they might be good at trivia contests and cocktail parties!). MOOCs do offer some organization, but they still force the student to select the correct curriculum. This is like asking a child to choose a parenting  strategy. Privileged students may have the proper family background to work around this (or even to benefit from it), but many, especially first-generation college students, do not.

However, the most serious barrier to the MOOC takeover is that MOOCs are designed for imparting information, which is only a small part of education. It is necessary, but far from sufficient. MOOCs are very good at information transfer: they are well produced, lively, well-organized and vetted for accuracy. Nonetheless, lack of information is not the problem in higher education. The internet has vast resources. Even before the internet, libraries housed uncountable volumes of excellent information. Thus, while MOOCs may improve access or make information transfer more fun, they are not solving a crucial problem. What are graduates able to do with the information? Can they apply it? Can they assess it critically? Can they create with it? MOOCs do not address these issues, and any worthwhile education needs to do so.

Admittedly, traditional education can sometimes do a poor job of addressing the same aspects of education that MOOCS ignore. A lecture class with 1000 students is like a MOOC, but inferior. As with MOOCs, no meaningful learning can take place, just information transfer. Unlike MOOCs, the lectures are dry, often unrehearsed, more idiosyncratic, and unavailable for future playback. It is in this arena that MOOCs will play a valuable role. If a university administrator or professor believes that education is just information transfer, they will find it increasingly difficult to avoid being replaced by higher quality online videos. On the other hand, any administrator or professor who cares about learning should welcome the MOOC as one of many technological innovations that, used in the right way, will make the teaching and learning experience more valuable. MOOCs allow professors to move the rote information transfer out of the classroom to give time for meaningful engagement with the students and the material.

In closing, as we move forward in the MOOC debate, we most certainly should demand high quality universities that provide meaningful learning experiences. Yet, while some of our traditional universities may fail in this regard, MOOCs alone are no solution. We need to take a comprehensive approach higher education reform.

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10 Responses to The MOOC takeover?

  1. Pingback: MOOCs in India | Kenfinity

  2. Duke says:

    An excellent post on a topic that will surely be more important in time. Traditional college will always have benefits. The guidance and knowledge of mentors cannot be replaced by internet study. However, if a student cannot get appreciable time with an instructor, they might as well be alone. MOOCs will tend to replace huge “cattle call” classes of 1,000 students by forcing colleges to small classroom sizes with one-on-one teacher attention. Anything else means you might as well be online.

    But this is an expensive proposition. Instead of one instructor per 1,000 kids you will need 20 or more. College costs are zooming through the roof. Huge staff increases will create a very costly education. The wealthy will not be impacted but the average person could find it too much. The result is a stratification in education. The wealthy will enjoy the benefits of college while the rest must make do with inferior MOOC.

    I’m starting to see it happen. College is increasingly being viewed as a rich person’s option by the youth. The debt and lost wages they incur for college seems out of proportion to the gains from graduation. They are turning to MOOC, trade schools, and other low cost options that simply do not give a quality education but are more affordable. The revolution is taking place as we speak.

    Colleges are facing a serious problem. They must provide student attention while being affordable. If they fail, colleges run the risk of becoming a playground to the wealthy. They will end up as a modern version of the “Grand Tour” from 1900 where the elite sent children around Europe to gain polish and education. In the end, the wealthy will always be wealthy regardless of education. The real loss is to the general public.

    • You certainly bring up some valuable points about the cost of education and the simple arithmetic of the student to teacher ratio. There is no simple solution to any of it. What I am certainly against is any reform that focuses on moving bodies through degree programs with no regard to what comes out.

      I would be curious to know whether the overall cost of education is rising faster than inflation or whether it is just the student share that is rising (due to falling state support). To the extent that it is the former, we have some structural problems to contend with (e.g., bloated administration and an arms race of campus improvement). To the extent that it is the latter, we have an important political dialogue to hold. Education is one way that a society invests in its future. To what extent are we willing to sacrifice goodies in the present to provide for an educated population?

      • Duke says:

        You mention points which have always mystified me. It’s true most campuses are in a state of constant construction but it seems the college rarely pays for it. To my knowledge, all major construction comes from government grants, alumni contributions, fund raising, and trust funds established as charitable gifts. I am not aware of any building from general college funds.

        Your mention of reduced state support is well taken. Everything I read places blame there for a majority of the cost increases. The excuse seems strange because the numbers don’t really add up. The cost increases are out of proportion to the state funding reductions. It’s hard to make the math work.

        A few of us tried to estimate the real costs of college while I was in graduate school. Most colleges are very old which means all the buildings were paid off long ago or built from grants. Schools are tax free institutions so no property or income taxes. They have to maintain the grounds and buildings plus pay for utilities and staff. There will be other consumable costs for supplies, lab materials, computers, equipment, and so forth. Using official data from the college for average salary, total staff, and overheads, we applied a very liberal fudge factor to cover unknown expenses. Our findings were surprising.

        It turned out the college sports program made enough to nearly fund the whole school. The money paid for television rights, advertising, parking, concessions, tickets, and product licensing amounted to the entire college budget as we estimated it. Alumni contributions to the football team alone was a large fortune.

        It’s true our estimate was probably missing some important points but the outcome made a point. There’s a lot of money flowing through colleges that isn’t being used for education. I don’t know where it’s going but someone should be asking tough questions. Before a college is allowed to raise tuition 10% we should be assured the football money, alumni contributions, grants, and gifts are being used appropriately and in the best interest of the students. Can we say that now? I’m not so sure.

        • You raise good issues… I don’t know the answers, but as you say, the arithmetic has to work out somewhat sensibly. It seems like you’ve given me another topic for my blog queue. I offer just two very brief responses: (1) construction projects (say for student gyms and the like) are often partly funded through fees placed on students and (2) we should keep in mind that most universities do not have the large sport teams or significant private donations – they operate under different fiscal realities. In any case, your question is still important: how do the numbers add up?!

          • Duke says:

            An area I didn’t mention is patents. Many universities are engaged in research which results in patents. The university owns them. A few share ownership with the staff (up to 50%) but never more. Because research forms the fundamental foundation of technology (and patents last for decades), it makes universities some of the largest intellectual copywrite holders on earth. They license or sell this intellectual property on a constant basis and it’s worth billions. Have you ever seen an honest accounting for how this money is handled? I haven’t and I’ve looked.

            Most of our modern society can trace its origin back to university R&D. It is the only place pure science is pursued. Where is the money for all the R&D patents going? Either colleges are giving it away for free (which should be stopped immediately) or it’s not being used appropriately for student education. Either way, there are questions to answer.

  3. Pingback: MOOCs and Education | Writing My Next Chapter

  4. elkement says:

    I enjoy following your blog … and I did it: I nominated in particular you – the chain letter award denier – for a blog award :-)
    This time I followed the rules, but feel free to apply an unconvential approach again :-)

    • Heh… Thanks. Let’s see what unconventional approach I can find this time… in June that is… For now, back to work and deadlines!

      • elkement says:

        I can just encourage you again to use whatever unconventional approach! I have been nominated again twice by two of my nominees, another nominated all blogs in the world for the Liebster award – so we all broke the rules deliberately :-)

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