Driven by technology
Higher education is in the midst of a transformation that’s arguably unlike anything since the the University of Bologna defined the “universitas magistrorum et scholarium” (a community of teachers and scholars) in 1088. The definition of this “community” is being stretched as never before as technology enables anytime, any place learning at the convenience of and pace for the student. We don’t have a clear picture of the end game, but clearly, change is afoot. Universities are experiencing rapidly escalating costs at the same time that their revenue streams are being challenged. While the multi-billion dollar endowments of the fortunate few can stave off change for a long time, for many institutions, the tipping point has arrived. The university model of today is personnel-intensive, and there is a finite limit of the productivity of faculty as defined in terms of the number of students who can be taught through conventional means. At the same time, changing demographics means that there are fewer 18-22 year old prospects for the standard university product, the 4-year residential degree. Fewer students means less revenue, and the competition for those remaining students drives institutions to build campus amenities at an ever escalating pace.
Mail to MOOCs
Over the last 300 years, innovators, entrepreneurs, and institutions have experimented with ways to provide education at a distance. From postal service in the early 1700’s to radio in the 1920’s, to TV in the 1940’s, to nascent computer-based training in the 1980’s, distance education has lurched forward in fits and starts. The progression of technology, and in particular the growing ubiquity of high-bandwidth connectivity (coupled with high fidelity display devices and the compute power to leverage those displays), has created an environment where the ability to connect, see and share is asymptotically approaching our abilities in the real world. The Massively Open Online Course (MOOC), a concept coined in 2008, is the beneficiary of this progression of events. For our purposes, though, the MOOC came of age in 2012 with the founding of Coursera, edX and Udacity.
What is a MOOC?
What is a MOOC? Many meanings have been ascribed to this acronym. Is it open? Is it free? Do you get credit? In some ways, the term is almost like a Rorschach blot…what do you see? This poster from 2013 sums up this polymorphism:
(image by Mathieu Plourde, under the Creative Commons license)
There are some things that we can likely agree on. Distance learning is certainly not new, and neither is the use of computers and networks for distance learning novel. What is new, however, is the scale (thousands, or even tens of thousands of students per course), and the business model – you might not be paid for offering this course, or not paid much. If you are considering offering a course as a MOOC, what content do you have that’s interesting enough to drive the demand?
MOOCs exist as credit and non-credit courses. The first course considered to be a MOOC offering, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, offered in 2008, had 25 paying students from the University of Manitoba and over 2000 online students from the general public. There has been a simmering tension between the business model and the original vision since the inception of the MOOC concept, but the wheels of progress have kept moving forward, and both the supply of courses and the demand for courses have grown. While non-credit courses are the norm, Georgia Tech, Udacity and AT&T are now offering an online Master’s degree in Computer Science for a tuition of under $7,000 for the full program. It’s possible to take the same courses free, without degree credit, but the accredited certification is what differentiates this program, and provides a way for the partners to monetize the undertaking. Some free or inexpensive specialty courses (such as Astronomy with Skynet ) offer novel benefits as a part of a course materials fee (time on a telescope on an Andes mountaintop). However, there is generally a divide between paying and non-paying students. You pay, you get credit or certification, otherwise, your takeaway is knowledge.
There is a taxonomy that differentiates types of MOOCs. So-called “connectivist” courses work through peer review and group collaboration, whereas “extended” courses work with objectives, assignments and tests which follows the traditional classroom model, but at scale. A further interesting twist is a course that works like an extended MOOC, but is only open to selected or screened (or paying) participants. This is the “Small Network Online Course” (SNOC).
So we return to our previous question, “What is a MOOC?” and we see that it’s not easy to precisely define, but at the same time, the current and impending impact on higher education is easy to see. MOOCs are thus not about technology per se, but driven by technology and the “anytime any place” culture that’s in evidence in the social and commercial web. Just as business transactions have become “disintermediated” by corporations such as Amazon, leading to the disappearance of some retail markets, the educational marketplace is seeing its stronghold of “mediated learning” under siege. What is its ultimate fate?
The future’s so bright, but…
The future is bright for some institutions, particularly those which focus on research and graduate degrees. Here, there is still a premium on close faculty-student collaboration, and on serendipitous interaction with colleagues that is, and will for the immediate future, remain challenging to simulate. It’s also bright for those with the capital (financial and intellectual) necessary to create compelling content and to achieve the production values and innovation necessary to be a player on this new field. However, the converse is that these changes are likely to negatively impact those “Brick and Ivy” institutions whose main product is the 4-year residential baccalaureate, and where resources don’t enable a competitive online offering.
There are still changes that must transpire before the full impact is felt. Degrees earned online do not always have the same respect as those earned in situ at an institution. Often coupled with increased pervasiveness of online learning is a “competency-based” approach, where learning is paced at the student’s independent accretion of skills, with facilitation by the instructor. But, this is not just an issue with MOOCs, rather with alternative forms of pedagogy and with online learning in particular. The MOOC wave captured the idea of reinventing higher education and moved it to the mainstream. While the MOOC may be still be on the hype cycle, it has made an impact on higher education.As we said at the outset, we don’t know where things will end up, but the institutions of higher education will be changed by these developments.
Gartner Hype Cycle CC BY-SA 3.0 view terms
Jeremy Kemp. – Own work. The underlying concept was conceived by Gartner, Inc.
Not every institution will be successful in negotiating this impending disruption. It takes content and resources to effectively deliver that content. What do you offer that’s better than anyone else in the world? The business model is still unproven, as are other impacts on the institution. Faculty roles will change, and the professoriate can be notoriously resistant to this. Some will embrace and be rewarded for the change, and others will not. Remember, though, that the MOOC is not the cause of this, but instead is the current manifestation of a process that’s been underway for 300 years, working to disrupt a 1000-year old paradigm. Understanding this context can help you prepare your institution for the impacts on education enabled by the continued march of technology.