Several smart columns also came out yesterday scaffolding (am I using that new jargon right?) off the Slate article. I’ll link them below.
So if MOOCs aren’t the answer to student learning or costs, what then? I think the right answer is access, but not necessarily in the way that term is usually meant. If you grant the premise that on-line delivery cannot (and therefore should not) completely replace more traditional models, then some of the grander claims of on-line fade. What I have in mind is more the ability to expand offerings within a traditional framework–providing access to coursework that colleges, especially small ones like ours, may have difficulty providing. And in a strange coincidence, as I have been writing this, an example of a sort has come into my e-mail. Around commencement season, there was a widely read editorial in the WSJ that suggested, among other things, that most college students would benefit from taking a coding course. (Thanks to colleague CD for finding the link.) This does seem like the sort of material that could be delivered effectively on-line, especially if, as at some schools, there is a local contact that might convene a group every so often and provide other support. And lo and behold this was in my inbox: Coding course finds ‘sweet spot’ between MOOCs and colleges. (Note that this model, if colleges have to hire the “mentors,” doesn’t necessarily save huge amounts of money, especially if they have to buy a license for the course, as seems to be the coming thing.) Some version of this is in our future, I think. It is nicely captured in Jeffrey Selingo’s new book College Unbound: the future of higher education and what it means for students. (My colleagues must think I get a cut of sales, given how often I’ve referenced this book recently.) As Selingo points out, colleges are one of the last purveyors of a bundled product and, like airlines, will be forced sooner, rather than later, to unbundle.
The difficulty, of course, is that, unbundled, the pieces of the college experience add up to much less than the sum of the parts. Higher education is about much, much more than a vehicle for collecting narrow competencies. And over and over again, employers report that it is precisely these “soft skills” (an odious term) that employers report they value most highly: communication, critical thinking, teamwork, ethics. What a surprise: we’ve ended up at the value of a liberal arts education! This is not to say, of course that we can’t do better–we can and must. MOOCs and on-line tools can be used to enhance face to face education. Faculty should be spending more time in facilitating discussion and other reflective and active experiences that allow students to gain the skills mentioned, not delivering lectures whose content can be made available in other ways. That’s our comparative advantage as we must exploit it to the fullest. (And we have to help our students realize this and be prepared for the job market.)
There’s obviously a lot more that could be said about this, but that’s enough for now. Here are some more links:
College Professors are about to get really mad at Obama
Are on-line classes failing America?
The MOOC that roared (interesting “success” story, except that Georgia Tech may be cannibalizing itself.)
We’re all to blame for MOOCs (“The widespread abandonment of the title “college” in favor of “university” demonstrates the preference to be perceived as “universal” and research-oriented rather than as a “collegium” drawn to a unique scholastic endeavor rooted in place and history. Higher education is becoming increasingly monocultural as demands for geographic (and market) expansiveness take precedence….a better path for those institutions that want not only to survive but to flourish, by refusing to go along with the monoculture. Those are the ones that have, or are seeking to recover, their distinctive institutional identities[.]“