If you work in education (or pay attention to this stuff), you’ve probably heard of MOOCs — so-called Massive Open Online Courses. Their aim is to make advanced learning broadly available to the masses, for free. But is this a workable business model?
Anyone who has toiled in journalism or the creative sector would be forgiven for blanching at the words “free” and “online” used in conjunction. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see the benefits of using technology to bootstrap the dissemination of knowledge. That’s why top officials at elite universities such as Harvard, Stanford and MIT are embracing the MOOC model as a potential game-changer for education.
How can spendy Ivy Leagues benefit from “giving away the store,” so to speak? Well, the idea is that MOOCs can act as a kind of recruitment tool for the on-campus experience, which, like live concert attendance, is impossible to digitally replicate. Administrators also see an opportunity to uncover new revenue through the downstream licensing of MOOC materials (videos and multimedia ed platforms, etc.) to smaller universities and state schools.
Yours truly has even gotten pulled into the MOOC frenzy. Without getting into details, the course I teach at a certain well-known DC university is being floated as a potential MOOC. This is very exciting, because I truly believe that my class — which deals with issues at the intersection of music, technology, policy and law — would be attractive to learners from all backgrounds. I know this because I see the response firsthand I guest lecture at other institutions. There may be a limited number of students on our campus who will make such studies their primary focus, but there’s definitely broader universe of learners who are very much interested in these subjects. MOOCs should help us tap into those communities.
As exciting as these possibilities may be, I confess to some reservations about the MOOC model. Knowledge isn’t merely access to information — it’s a more subtle exchange of practice, skeptical inquiry, tailored feedback and other irreducible factors. MOOC champions would likely say that these “new” methods aren’t meant to displace traditional modes of learning, but some worry that that’s exactly what will eventually happen. The most dire predictions range from confusion in hiring standards to the outright extinction of small-to-mid sized educational institutions.
Given the downward pressure that “free” has placed on newsgathering and other forms of content production, it makes sense to examine the potential impact of liberating higher education from its ivory towers. Still, there is also the larger societal good to consider. There is nothing inherently wrong about making knowledge more accessible, but it’s important to keep expectations in check. Watching a TED-style video on neurophysiology will likely not equip you to be a brain surgeon. What it might do, however, is awaken a deeper respect for the kind of training it takes to achieve excellence in a given field. If MOOCs serve to inspire more people on a path of knowledge, they will have value.
The economics are a different story. One can imagine already harried professors being asked to produce extra content for mass dissemination, much like already harried reporters have been pressured to add blogging and social networking to their reporting duties. Added value has its place, but to be sustainable, it requires more of an investment in human resources, not less.
I have high hopes for MOOCs, because I believe in self-determination and democratic access to knowledge. In fact, I wish this kind of thing existed back when I was rebelling against secondary institutions 20-odd years ago. I blame some of my own academic non-achievement on the fact that, as a kid growing up in a tiny Northeast mill town in the 1970s and ’80s, I had next to no examples of what higher education could unlock in terms of professional and personal accomplishment. I’d like to think that a young — or old! — person today would potentially have more opportunities due to advances in technology.
Maybe MOOCs are a fad. Maybe they’re the end of education as we know it. Maybe they’re a solution in search of a business model. Only time will tell.