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.