MOOCs Are Not the Answer: Embracing Creative Chaos for Online Education

Skeletons of mammals in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford, England, UK.

Reports of the demise of the American educational system have been greatly exaggerated.

According to the New York Times, 2012 was the Year of the MOOC with the emergence of edX, Udacity, and Coursera as education providers, tearing down the walls for top-tier universities and providing free access to Ivy League professors and curriculum to a global audience. In another piece, NYT Columnist Tom Friedman breathlessly predicts:

“[A] day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion.”

But there are fundamental limits on what a MOOC can accomplish at scale when introducing student interactivity. As we covered in a recent post (What Can We Learn from Coursera’s “MOOC Mess”), online education requires tradeoffs. You can broadcast a video or self-paced module to 41,000 students without difficulty, but things get tricky quickly if you start introducing group exercises without planning ahead.

However, there is a growing consensus that these massive courses are simply the future wherein top-tier universities will claim a global audience for rock-star professors while mid-range universities will be squeezed out of the picture. If we assume that the future of online education looks like a MOOC, then that is a reasonable assumption: You and your children will sit at home and watch videos, click through quizzes, and call it an education when you receive your degree. Mid-range universities won’t compete to pay $50,000 per course (the average cost of setting up a MOOC) without a globally known faculty, so why try to compete with the big players?

As currently designed, MOOCs fundamentally privilege existing brands. Universities want to establish multi-year partnerships with large tech firms to leverage their globally recognized name. However, edutech startups are starting to provide another answer for mid-range universities. A recent Guardian article (Are edutech startups plugging an innovation gap in our universities?) revealed a different path forwards for education during an interview with Victor Henning of Mendeley:

The recent boom in edutech startups, says Henning, reflects the fact that universities no longer need either to buy in bulk or build everything from scratch. Instead they should use their time and resources more wisely by collaborating with smaller companies already working on new software solutions, many of which have their roots in the higher education sector.

If true, then this provides another way forward for non-Ivy League universities: Don’t compete as institutions; compete as classrooms. Rather than multi-year deals for hundreds of thousands of dollars to compete for a global market you can’t possibly win, look to empower your teachers with the ability to teach online classes with video conferencing, social networking, and group projects by embracing a host of different tools provided by a variety of edutech startups.

The consensus is right on one thing: The Ivy League universities are going to win on name recognition. They will provide engaging videos to millions around the world that share the one-way “sage on a stage” lectures of their top-tier talent to lock in an unproven MOOC business model. But that’s no guarantee that their professors will be able to provide the most engaging course format. Universities that embrace this current tech chaos by empowering their professors to work with a wide range of startups may just find themselves ahead of the pack.

As we explored in a blog post last July (Three Questions to Ask As Universities Incorporate Hybrid Classroom Pedagogies), professors like Dr. John Boyer of Virginia Tech have managed to push the boundaries of the classroom using widely available tech like Twitter and Skype. While educational tools are advancing at an ever-increasing rate, the pedagogical challenges for incorporating their possibilities have hardly changed. Universities should embrace those challenges, rather than looking for a tool to solve them.

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