Saturday, May 11, 2013

Are MOOCs the future of higher education?

MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses are increasingly gaining prominence. According to Wikipedia (yes, there is already an entry for MOOCs in there; what other evidence do you need that MOOCs have arrived?), 2012 became the “Year of the MOOC” with several providers including Coursera, Udacity and EdX emerging. Most of these are joint ventures by leading universities such as Stanford, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Michigan and Berkeley to name a few. Most of them are backed by venture capitalists with deep pockets generating the potential for future success.

So the questions are: if you are a student planning to go to university, or the parents of one worrying about the financial cost of higher education, is this an option you should investigate? And are universities doomed?

While an increasing number of people seem ready to answer these two questions in the affirmative, I am not so sure.

First, I sincerely doubt that MOOCs pose a threat to the traditional liberal arts institutions which rely upon small class sizes that offer close and intense interaction among professors and students. So the likes of Wellesley, Williams, Swarthmore and Amherst are most likely not under much threat.

Second, MOOCs do not have now and will most likely never have the same brand recognition as top universities. But while someone doing MOOCs with Stanford will clearly not have the same credentials as someone actually attending Stanford, the question remains, how does the Stanford MOOCs student compare with someone getting a degree from Auckland? The former is a cheaper. Could it be a better substitute?

This is a valid question. Our biggest lecture theatre at Auckland seats more than 500 people. I can barely make out faces beyond the first ten or so rows. A large number of students clearly cannot see me well since they often confuse me with other professors from the Indian sub-continent!  

If MOOCs pose a threat to any particular type of delivery mode it is this reliance on large impersonal methods of delivery in many of our universities.

To the extent that a part – maybe even a large part of what we do – is mere information transmission from one party to another, MOOCs may be able to achieve the same aim, maybe even better.

But at the end of the day what universities provide – or at least what I hope they provide – is not merely transmission of information, but rather an education. Education clearly has some direct utilitarian ends. But that is certainly not the entirety of education. A crucial humanizing role of our universities is the creation of educated citizens who are vital for a well-functioning democratic society.  

This is where I believe MOOCs come up short. This is because a large part of education also consists of interactions between professors and students and the students themselves.

MOOCs providers realize this and plans are afoot to offer facilities for interaction between students and at times tutorials led by experienced students. But interaction with the super-star professors teaching the courses is not and never will be on the cards.

So what? How much interaction do I have with the students that I teach? Not a lot I admit. But by arriving before lectures, walking the aisles during one, staying back after lectures and making time to meet students during office hours I reach hundreds more than would be the case if I taught a MOOCs course.

Moreover, in many of these interactions the questions I answer are not about the course but rather: what should I major in? How did you know that you wanted to be a professor? And the always popular: what do you think I should do with my life? MOOCs will not be providing answers to these questions any time in the near future.

When I went to college eons ago, I did learn some economics. But what I remember at least as much is that my class-mates turned me on to Albert Camus, Umberto Eco and T.S. Eliot, Sergei Eisenstein, Orson Welles and Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Chet Baker. This has played a crucial role in defining who I am and what I am today.

In going forward, I anticipate that MOOCs might take over some of our functions as pure information disseminators. To an extent MOOCs may be able to supplant or complement some of what we attempt to do in large lectures. But this is not the same as education and if we equate the two we do so at peril to the future of our societies.

I have neatly side-stepped the question of escalating cost of higher education which is a debate for another day. But whatever the answer to that question is, exclusive reliance in MOOCs is not it.  

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