Relax, Higher Education Won’t Be Killed By MOOCs
“My argument is that to the extent that a MOOC focuses on content, like a traditional course, it begins to fail. A MOOC should focus on the connections, not the content.” — Stephen Downes
I read University World News frequently, and find it a great place to keep abreast of what’s happening in higher education in other countries, especially in the low and middle income countries covered by their Africa edition. But that doesn’t mean everything they print is necessarily entirely on point, and a recent case in point is their commentary Yes, MOOC is the global higher education game changer, by Simon Marginson from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne.
Given Prof. Marginson’s impressive resume, I was surprised that this piece had factual inaccuracies, even from the very first sentence. Firstly, “MOOC” doesn’t stand for “Free Massive Open Online Courseware”, it stands for “Massive Open Online Course”. Courseware is something a bit different, and while MOOCs might make use of open courseware, and while the same institution might offer both (most famously MIT), they’re not the same thing.
Secondly, the MOOC offered by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig late last year was a great success which rightfully got a lot of attention, but it wasn’t the first MOOC. It’s tough to draw a bright line here, but the real first one was probably one offered in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes through Athabasca University.
Thirdly — and I’ll admit that this point is more in the realm of opinion and prediction — the idea that MOOCs will spell the death of higher education as we know it may be exciting to say, but there are some fundamental barriers involved that will be pretty challenging to overcome. As someone who’s worked in online education for a long time, I can assure you that not everyone wants to learn online, even if from a well-regarded school. Another is that MOOCs from prestigious universities do not lead to academic credit, and this is an important drawback to them that their cheerleaders need to consider a little more closely. Moreover, if I may be allowed a prediction, they never will lead to credit, especially from top universities. Education is not a university’s true product, prestigious credentials are. When employers start accepting MOOC certificates of completion as the equivalent to a university degree, then one will be able to consider them a substitute. Until then, one simply cannot.
Don’t get me wrong, MOOCs are a great new tool in the toolbox of adult education. I’m glad schools are offering them, in fact I’m doing one myself later this year. But as exciting as they are, they cannot be all things to all people, and local universities are in no danger whatsoever of being supplanted by them any time soon.