MOOCs and the future of higher education [Part 2]

By | April 8, 2014

So just what are MOOCs, anyway, and why should we care? Aren’t they just hype, or worse – a gimmick dreamed up by the for-profit sector to flimflam the non-elites? There’s certainly an element of marketing gee-whiz. The first MOOCs were largely show-off technology, but also partly marketing devices used by their universities to publicize special areas of expertise. For example, the original Stanford course in computer science was intended to highlight their CS programs (of course, anyone who didn’t already know about Stanford’s computer science programs would have been living in the FORTRAN era.) But they have certainly evolved far beyond that startup phase, and certainly now must be considered a serious component of the newly evolving higher education landscape.

I’ve taken several MOOCs through Coursera and iVersity, and I can personally testify to their educational value at least in terms of my own interests in new areas such as gamification and advanced data analysis. And there is lots of testimony from other students folks about the merits of courses in areas such as modern poetry and calculus.

At a slightly lower level of sophistication, there’s Khan Academy, the provider of an enormous number of short tutorials in lots of different subjects. This has by reports been of enormous value in terms of filling in lots of remedial areas. Its highly modular structure allows fine-tuning of educational needs.

Much of the criticism of MOOCs has revolved around their inability to duplicate the standard university FTF class experience. This seems misplaced at best – even the most rabid MOOC partisan doesn’t really believe them to be equivalent. But if they aren’t replacing FTF, classes, what are they actually likely to do?

Much of their target audience seems to be people like me, who aren’t looking for more degrees (I already have four, which is enough to provide the four placemats that my family needs.) What we’re looking for is more education, in areas either that weren’t part of our formal degree programs or that have changed a lot since we were credentialed. Education isn’t just about degrees or even about completing formal programs set by others; it’s about feeling ourselves learning and growing.

It’s pretty clear that most people enrolled in MOOCs aren’t there looking to accumulate credentials. Only about 5% to 15% of initial enrollees actually go through all the required hoops to pick up a certificate, let alone formal credits. Many commentators see this as an inherent failure. For my part, I believe that all this hoo-hah about “low completion rates” in MOOCs is misplaced. It’s based on an erroneous equation of the educational content of a MOOC with a traditional “credit hour” (which personally I also believe to be a stupid concept – more on that later). MOOC education is about personal learning – you know whether or not you have learned. And there are plenty of ways for that learning to be shown to others without requiring the MOOC to assume that responsibility or to “certify” it.

If you learn calculus through a MOOC and a university wants to know what you learned, let them test you and let you demonstrate it. At present, universities accept that you know things because you took and passed a course somewhere else; that’s what “credit hour transfers” are all about. But they really don’t know that you know anything. The last calculus I took was over 50 years ago. But if I were to apply somewhere and claim that I knew calculus as a transfer credit, they’d probably accept it. In my former university we had a requirement that incoming PhD students needed to have taken “a course in statistics”. We routinely accepted such as such courses the things that people had taken in their MBA programs, often many years earlier. As it turned out, the level of actual preparation people had in statistics ranged from less than zero to a little bit; transfer credit proved worthless as a way of establishing capability.

If we accept the principle of lifelong learning, MOOCs can clearly be seen as a component of a system to facilitate this. They aren’t the only component, and they don’t work for everyone everywhere. But they can and do deliver a lot of effective educational content and value to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. Obviously (and despite the hype offered by some of their early champions) MOOCs aren’t simply a FTF college course multiplied by a few thousand. They are a different breed of educational mechanism, and fill a different niche in the higher educational spectrum. But they are going to be an important part of the new HE equilibrium that’s still swirling around in development. Don’t write them off just because they don’t do everything.

A few more comments in this area forthcoming. Stay tuned.