The Future of Higher Education

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Graphic courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education
Graphic by XARISSA HOLDAWAY; illustration by NIGEL HAWTIN
Sources: THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, FINANCIAL TIMES, NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION, THE NEW YORK TIMES, TECHCRUNCH, CNN, WIRED, AND YAHOO FINANCE

 

Graduation season is upon us, and once again the debates over the futures of students – both those receiving their diplomas this spring, and those with a few years left in their studies – have started.

The first thing that comes to mind when discussing the value of one’s education is usually “what job can I get with this degree?” or “how long will I be unemployed/looking for a job after graduation?” which is a topic we’ll save for a later date. (A date when the statistics look a little more promising, perhaps.) Instead, we’ll turn to the debate over digital coursework. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are not necessarily new, but they’re becoming an increasingly utilized and debated method of education. MOOCs are web-based courses, open to the public, for little or no tuition.

In case you’re new to the term “MOOC” here’s the basic breakdown of how they work:

  • A university develops an online course, complete with video lectures, a variety of multimedia and interactive tools, and participation outlets (online discussion boards, blogs, etc.)
  • Typical MOOCs have set start and end dates, though a few are available for indefinite periods of time. Students sign up online, and learn at their own pace.
  • Because MOOCs don’t have traditional “caps” (a maximum number of students allowed to sign up for the course) the ratio of professors/teaching assistants to students is disproportionate. To accommodate for this lack of direct support from academic sources, MOOCs are designed so that the rest of the online learning community and peers in the course help their fellow classmates through evaluation of writing assignments and online tests.
  • Most MOOCs offer some sort of “certificate of completion.” A fully MOOC based education will not likely lead you to a traditional degree or diploma, though many traditional universities offer MOOCs as part of their existing course curriculums.

Sounds pretty great, right?

So where’s this “debate” coming from? Well, if you’re a teacher, or an academic administrator, you might have spotted one of the problems: where does the professor fit in with the MOOC learning model? The more economically inclined readers of this blog might ask: how do universities make any money?

Most classes, as mentioned above, are far too large (hundreds, even thousands of students might enroll in a single class) for a single professor, or even a team of professors, to give the attention an individual student needs. Many MOOCs don’t even have a professor proctoring them. These MOOCs are taken from successful and well-established courses at a university, one that a professor may have been teaching for several years. One semester, he (or she) need only record their lectures, keep a record discussion questions that arise in class, and then upload these materials to an online platform – BAM! Insta-MOOC. The learning community will participate in lectures and discussions as they wish, and the professor can essentially forget about the online course.

So, can digital courses eliminate hundreds of jobs across the country by replacing our professors? The staff at San Jose State University seem to think not. They argue that the way MOOCs are gaining popularity, there is a very real danger of digital education replacing traditional face-to-face models. You can read their argument here, or here.

Some students may benefit from MOOCs, and the accessibility of online courses. Others may prefer traditional lectures. Still others may prefer a blended system, where lectures are given online, and homework is done in class, with the professor nearby for questions.

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