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MOOCs are rising: what to do about it

05.15.2013
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What connect’s Seth Godin’s Linchpin to a vote at Amherst? The question of MOOCs. Godin’s pitch goes something like this: access to knowledge is no longer sacred and siloed; your ability to get knowledge really doesn’t matter anymore, and your ability to create unique, unoutsourceable value is your only hope. Amherst’s pitch sounds a bit different: a university is about more than knowledge, and we won’t participate until we know more.

I’m going to pull from Godin’s thinking to simply ask “the way we obtain knowledge has changed… what are you doing about it?”

The nay sayers club

Amherst has their answer: no thanks (yet). Similarly, a California State University wrote a letter to a Harvard prof saying ‘you’re hurting [our business model].’ Amherst claims teacher-student interaction is key to their success. San Jose State claims the model undercuts value of public and smaller institutions of higher learning (and quiets the smaller voices).

Usually underdogs don’t say “I won’t play that game” or “stop, you switched players.” Not the good ones anyway. They play harder. Figure out their unique talents and value, build their tribe, and dig deep. I actually think Amherst is doing that – they’re not out to please everyone and want to offer those who chose them the best of what they can offer. Props.

I’m not here to argue that MOOCs are a panacea for education. In fact, they’re basically just another delivery mechanism for traditional brick-and-mortar lectures. But they represent a seismic shift in access to certain areas of knowledge that were once reserved for the rich and privileged. As Bill Gates said in a recent interview with Fast Company, some professors are just significantly better than others, and more people should have more access to that environment. Pair that with the exponentially growing knowledge base on the web, the numerous ways to connect virtually and in person, and you don’t leave a lot of room for the old institutions.

Not all rosy

That said, there are some legitimate concerns that people have raised.

  • Academia needs diversity of thought. Yes, but pointless diversity (i.e. quantity for its own sake) doesn’t count. If you have a good idea, build a village around it. It’s easy to blame charisma if your idea isn’t spreading. But maybe you need to blame your idea.
  • One-on-one interaction is critical to success of higher learning. Seminars, Socratic-style sessions, case studies, debates, and similar truly engaging methods of learning are all incredibly difficult to replace or replicate online. In fact, they’re probably impossible. Furthermore, they’re the exception, not the rule. That said, I’m not sure we’ve really experimented enough with the formats to know differently. Opting out while others experiment is a sure-fire way to get disrupted.
  • Higher Ed and K-12 are different spheres, and MOOCs have no place in the latter. I think digital learning has its values and its limits. The idea that we can replace teachers with robots and iPads is ridiculous. Teachers connect with students, inspire them, challenge them, stretch their imaginations, introduce new concepts, build their character, and drive creativity. At least the good ones do. But then there’s everything else, and most teachers I know wouldn’t mind a bit of help from our computer friends. In other words, choosing the right moment for virtual delivery is more important than simply having to answer yay or nay.
  • Many students aren’t ready to be self-disciplined in a MOOC setting. This is true to an extent, but maybe not the right question or issue to look at. If we define MOOC as a thing that replaces a college lecture, than yes, many students are unprepared for this format and will struggle. Then again, there’s plenty of data that suggests students already are missing more than 40% of teaching thanks to the web and their devices when they’re in class. The data further supports this with lower than 10% completion rates in even the highest rated classes (read the article for more perspective). But if we look at a MOOC as a way of opening up an expert’s knowledge, domain, and creativity to the masses, that’s a very different scenario – most people aren’t in it for the certificate. Consider if each TED talk were MOOC-ized, with related readings, videos, discussion fora, and more. This sort of naturally happens through Twitter hashtags and Wikipedia during and after the great speeches, but it’s chaotic. Right now MOOCs are largely about giving universities another platform for their professors, but that will change.
  • College is more than just class. I don’t think anyone disagrees here, but the power of the internet to help people meet up with just about anyone they could dream up, organize around something, and do it, kind of makes the college club and “educating the full scholar” a bit out-dated as we currently think about it.

Count up the votes

MOOCs certainly have momentum (and money) on their side. EdX is growing steadily while Coursera, who recently celebrated their first birthday with a jump from a few thousand students to a few million, is expanding into a new territory of professional development for teachers (which will likely change PD in all domains).

This comes at a time when spiking tuition costs, deepening and crushing student debt, and the devaluation of a bachelors degree all have traditional institutions on the edge. Pair that with a shrinking job market for non-digital/non-specialized skills and it’s fair to ask what will universities offer to the class of 2020?

It’s not about MOOCs

There’s a big difference between how Amherst, Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell are approaching the changes in education. We’ve already talked about Amherst (‘we have a great system; we’ll wait and watch’), so let’s dig a bit more into two other institutions and their foray into the future of higher ed.

Harvard and MIT played to one of their key strengths when they launched edX: brand. Harvard’s endowment can basically fund the essentials of the school, year over year. They’re still going to attract the best researchers, professors, and, in turn, students. Put in more concrete terms, they could offer the gift of free education for all because a) they could afford it, and b) the value of their diploma still stands out as an asset. The irony, of course, is that this generosity is just going to attract more talent (professors looking for a large stage) and more bright and diverse students. Expect to see more of this from large, established institutions.

On the flip side of virtual expansion, Cornell has taken a very different approach. Teaming up with the Technion University of Israel (arguably one of the best engineering-focused schools in the world), they’ve begun to build a new campus on a deserted island in the middle of New York City in an effort to spawn Silicon Valley East. While it takes huge capital investments to do this, there were no shortage of donors to step up to the plate to make it happen (I’m guessing they would have had a bit more difficulty launching a Classics off-shoot). Cornell’s bet: pair cutting edge research, best-in-class knowledge, and inter-disciplinary entrepreneurship focused programming that moves students from writing theses to building things. Keep your eyes on this.

Stanford emerged over the last 10 years as one of the most sought-out schools in the world. In fact, some rankings now list both their undergraduate and graduate programs in the top 3. Why the interest? Setting aside Stanford’s influence on the growth of Silicon Valley, it’s robust and storied business and law schools, the d.school has been the one grabbing headlines lately. Combining “Design Thinking” with the innovative practices of lean start-ups, proven practices from business school, and inter-disciplinary research and methods from other Stanford branches, Stanford carved out a new niche and they’ve claimed the top spot. Their classes and fellowships can’t be easily replicated online, and their approach (build and launch), like that of Cornell Tech, puts the emphasis on launch/build/solve above publish.

As Godin might say, we’ve gone from study and conform to solve and ship.

Where to from here?

After completing two MOOCs of my own, I’m left with a few concluding thoughts:

  1. Don’t listen to what other people are saying about MOOCs (myself included) and try one. If it sucks, drop it, but beware, you might just get addicted.
  2. If you’re writing your PhD about the Fairy Queen, you might want to save yourself the trouble now.
  3. If you’re worried about being “disrupted” by MOOCs, look around you. Do you have a tribe? A unique voice? Are you a “linchpin” as Godin would say? If you’re not, don’t blame the MOOC.
  4. We’re just at the beginning of this wave, so find ways to improve it, not undermine it.
Published at DZone with permission of Josh Dormont, author and DZone MVB.

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