MOOCs or Massively Open Online Courses are threatening, or promising, radical change in higher education. They need to be seen as one component of a new higher education ecology: a diverse system of complementary kinds of learning experiences.
What MOOCs offer are effective content delivery and global scale: well-designed lecture courses and assignments in place of mediocre ones, and tens or hundreds of thousands of simultaneous students instead of “merely” hundreds. They will also inevitably be available for free.
Universities are falling all over themselves and each other to be the first to put great MOOCs online and capture whatever brand-enhancement doing so will bring. New start-ups with different business models are offering online platforms for the new MOOCs, e.g. Coursera.org, EdX.org, and Udacity.com .
But all academics (perhaps those in the humanities moreso than those in the sciences) recognize that access to knowledge (think libraries) is not enough to enable education. Very bright and well-prepared students can go a long way by learning on their own, but most students need to interact with peers and mentors to get beyond the basics. All students benefit from discussions of ideas that raise critical perspectives and weigh alternative approaches to a topic. All students need some apprenticeship into the ways of thinking and feeling that characterize the great intellectual traditions of the natural and social sciences and the humanities. The higher goals of higher education require more than what MOOCs alone can provide.
What we need to know is this: What aspects of advanced learning can be readily scaled up for massive online audiences, and how? What more, in addition to MOOCs, is needed to make higher education work?
So far, I think we know this: In addition to online lectures and other resources, even modestly interactive ones, students need to participate in online discussions in mixed groups that include some minimum percentage of more able peers and mentors. No one knows what that critical percentage may be for various populations and learning domains. Current MOOCs are highly self-selective: those who enroll are often people who already have a college degree and students who find the going rough tend to drop out. To achieve the promise of global access to higher education, we need to know how to support the less well-prepared mass of potential students.
Once MOOCs are available that are superior at what they do to the average college lecture-style course, students will want and deserve credit for learning by MOOC. That will leave colleges and universities to provide, on campus, the other elements of a good education – those that come from thoughtful interaction with faculty and peers. So called hybrid or blended models mix learning from MOOCs with face-to-face learning, as we have always mixed learning from textbooks or lectures with smaller discussion classes. But universities will now have to do this without the revenue that has traditionally come from tuition paid for lecture courses and the credits they confer.
In this brave new world, the already over-priced 4-year degree will probably not survive. The American principle that students spend 2 years getting “well-rounded” and 2 years learning a major subject in depth makes much less sense when you can continue to get a broad general education throughout your life via MOOCs. General introductory lecture courses will be replaced by MOOCs in all fields. Students on campus will be expected to come into advanced courses already well prepared by MOOCs. This will play out differently in different fields, with scientific and technical fields giving up the most to MOOCs, and discussion-centered humanities courses or writing-improvement courses the least.
All of this is also going to put pressure on secondary education. MOOCs will erase the distinction between later secondary education and what is currently counted as early university education. Secondary schools are better equipped to do more of the small-scale preparatory work than they now do: teaching better reading and writing skills, initiating students into the art of productive discussion, supporting supervised hands-on and out-of-school experiences. Some MOOCs will be populated by a diverse mix of ages, from early teens to senior netizens. The role and structure of secondary education will change just as much as that of higher education, but in different ways.
I believe the key to making MOOCs work is to embed them in a broader learning ecosystem. MOOCs already include provision for online discussion groups, but these will only work if we find ways to scale-up the numbers of participating mentors and better-prepared peers and maintain optimal ratios. In addition to online experience, students will also need, especially early in their encounters with new disciplinary ways of thinking, face-to-face, hands-on, and real-world experiences and support for integrating these with what they are learning online.
I want to believe that MOOCs will drive higher education uphill toward the higher goals for which it was originally envisioned.
For more thoughts on related issues, see my blog entry “Re-Engineering Higher Education” below and these short essay drafts.