Putting MOOCs Where Our Mouths Are

The media are offering us a vision of higher education’s nirvana. It is a virtual academy where courses are taught online to anyone who wants to take them by a select set of elite lecturers from elite universities, and where there is no charge for tuition. These Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, we are told, will instantly and dramatically bring down college costs and make advanced knowledge available to all, quickly rendering the centuries-old model of higher education obsolete and financially bankrupt. Ergo, once enough MOOCs are created, everyone in the world in a particular discipline will get the same degree from the world’s only institution: “Internet University.” For free.

But this won’t happen anytime soon, and the nation ought to do everything we can to prevent it from happening at all. For sure, these MOOCs, which have soared in availability in the last couple of years, are a valuable new instrument in higher education’s tool box, but what they really represent is an opportunity for higher education to amplify the quality of residential education using on-line techniques.

The media – and even several college presidents — have allowed MOOC developers to drive the narrative. They promote this technology as an opportunity to educate the planet’s masses at low cost and there is some credibility to this potential. The media, then, extrapolates this to mean MOOCs should bring down the cost of higher education. But where their argument loses its way is in its failure to distinguish between a degree – a piece of paper certifying the completion of a set of courses in a particular discipline – and an education — the transformation of a young adult into an individual with life-long learning and societal skills, an enhanced capacity for creative and analytic thought, and an appreciation and skill for how human interactions and dialog are essential components of design, creativity and societal function. An individual could conceivably use MOOCs to get a degree, but an education – and with it the ability to think and adapt effectively to an ever-changing world over a lifetime – is well beyond this technology’s capabilities.

MOOCs, as they are presently used, have several other shortcomings. With little or no intellectual or financial investment, the vast majority of students do not finish their courses. Also, you don’t need to be an education expert to know that thousands-to-one student-professor ratios cannot foster learning, and while MOOCs tout interactivity, students never engage each other face to face. History also shows that giving a product away soon results in the product’s collapse.

Does this mean we should discard MOOCs? On the contrary, they offer great value if we use them in the right way. Our primary motivation should not be amplifying access and quality of course contents to the world’s masses for free. Learning by the masses will happen as a side benefit to the people that take them and perhaps to society at large. But, we need to view MOOCs as an opportunity to dramatically amplify the quality of a college education.

MOOCs can enhance the preparation of societal engineers if they are used to invert the traditional instructional model of classroom-lecture-followed-by-homework. This much more powerful pedagogy allows concepts to be presented online in whatever quanta in time and content makes the most sense to enhance learning. With MOOCs and other advances in on-line learning software, we can better motivate students to engage the material before class, perhaps accelerating adoption of a more impactful pedagogy of using class time to amplify application and context, guided by the professor and with interaction among students at a premium. This will likely improve education by orders of magnitude.

Face-to-face interaction among students and with their professor teaches students to develop creativity, defend their ideas, explore new ideas, and appreciate how their ideas may or may not be compatible with others and how they fit into society. MOOCs may be a good way to present new ideas and concepts, but they are not a substitute for a group of people getting together and hammering out complex solutions to technological and societal problems.

We need the leaders of higher education in this nation to recapture the control of the dialog behind MOOCs. They need to “put MOOCs where their mouths are” and to convey that their pursuit is not about finances but about the quality with which we can amplify a college education at our institutions. Hence, while they are unlikely to reduce the cost of college, the value proposition at our institutions will go way up. That is a good thing.

This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of The Engineer.