MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, have lately been promoted as the new phenomenon that is going to destroy the university system. Why will people pay for a university education, the line of reasoning goes, if they can get the same thing online for free? And given that college grads are having so much trouble getting jobs to pay off their loans, won’t people start seeing college as a bad investment?
As I’ve written before, I am not a fan of the “college for everyone” theory that has dominated American educational planning for the last generation. On a policy level, I think it’s shortsighted to think that we’d want a country where everyone was college-educated, or that it was even feasible. On a personal level, college education simply doesn’t suit everyone. All of us have our own individual paths in life, and sometimes a college education does not lead in the direction we need to go. I think that pushing more and more kids into college as the default option after high school has degraded the quality of our universities and led to less respect for all the important and valuable pursuits for which college is not a prerequisite.
As a homeschooler, however, I do think that MOOCs are a welcome new addition to the options for learning outside of structured environments, and I love the idea that the breadth of human knowledge is being made available to everyone, everywhere.
But will MOOCs make the whole idea of the university education obsolete?
I don’t think so, but I do think that they will change the way we view self-education, and their use will drive what incoming college students will expect to get for their investment of money and time.
What do MOOCs do well?
MOOCs provide access to information and current ways of analyzing and presenting it. They provide connections between professors who once were perched on a pedestal to the rest of the world. They allow students who formerly were cut off from college–by geography, money, or life experiences—the ability to access some of the teaching they would have otherwise missed. MOOCs allow people to continue their education or just to fill in areas of interest. They also allow the students to access to help and ideas from fellow students around the world.
What do universities do well?
When the right students attend them (see my note above about “college for everyone”), universities are places that bring together advanced thinkers with less-educated people who want to advance their knowledge and skills. An optimal undergraduate experience is one in which the student’s perspectives get broadened and they are introduced to new ideas and ways of thinking. And this happens largely because of the new environment, being able to work directly with professors, and hanging out with other students who are going through the same transformation. The other thing that universities offer is a place for the highly educated to work together, exchanging ideas and research. Sometimes this part of the university life seems inaccessible to lower-level students, but usually they are worked in to the process, especially if they are in a field that mostly happens in the university environment. Lastly, universities provide an all-important networking opportunity. Future entrepreneurs find each other, future political leaders develop their skills together, and—I won’t deny that this is important—future best friends and spouses meet each other.
So if MOOCs won’t kill universities, what will they do?
First, a caveat: I do think that MOOCs may end up changing education as we know it at community colleges and lower level universities. Already, what with the recession and the sudden availability of free education, they are feeling the pinch. Some of these colleges are already doing what I expect all of them will eventually do: using MOOCs to provide part of the education that they offer their students. [See how San Jose State is doing this.] Other lower level colleges are just going to fail to attract enough students to remain viable, especially for-profit colleges which often prey on their students rather than educate them.
But I believe that MOOCs will never be able to provide the benefits that an in-person degree at a good university can provide:
- Working directly with the best thinkers in your field
- Developing mentoring relationships with professors or more experienced students
- Learning from, helping, and arguing with your fellow students
- Creating the sorts of connections that in some fields are absolutely necessary for success
- Having guidance in honing your analytical skills in ways that can’t be done alone
What bothers me is not that people are excited about online learning (so am I) or that people think it has some benefits over traditional college (it does), but that everyone is so happily throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Traditional college is still going to be the best choice for people who should have been there to begin with.
So will MOOCs destroy education as we know it?
No, but they are a welcome addition to the tools available for self-education and advancement.
See related: Helping teens get the most from MOOCs