MOOCs to the Rescue?

If you’re fed up with our current higher education system—its costs, its inefficiencies, its elitism—then maybe you’re rooting for the MOOCs.

That would be the acronym for “massive open online courses,” which allow students from all over the world to learn, cheaply, from Internet-based classes minus the classroom. They are growing in respectability and popularity. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the American Council on Education intends to recommend that colleges grant credit for certain classes offered by online-education provider Coursera, which has amassed more than 2.5 million registered users across 217 classes. Many traditional colleges, for their part, are frightened.

But is it time to write off the classroom?

In a thoughtful articleJane E.G. Lipson, a chemistry professor at Dartmouth College, admits that “the current university model may not be financially sustainable.” But she wants us to remember that college is a lot more than a lecturer on a podium. “The energy and excitement that animates a campus is generated by the creation, accrual and sharing of knowledge among a community of learners,” she writes. “Only part of that occurs in organized and predictable gatherings. The sparks come from interactions that are informal and unplanned, motivated by a shared desire to solve a problem, or argue a point, or develop a nascent idea.”

Peter Drucker took pleasure in our new technologies of connectedness. “I no longer have to travel to address audiences in foreign countries,” he observed in 1994.  “Within the last few months, I have spoken to very large audiences in Berlin, in São Paulo and in Johannesburg, without traveling to Germany, Brazil or South Africa.” Drucker’s mode at the time was videoconference and satellite communications.

He also recognized that the Internet would change everything, including how we learn. In 1989, he asked outright, “Will tomorrow’s university be a ‘knowledge center’ that transmits information, rather than a place that students actually attend?” And (as we’ve noted) in 1997, he went so far as to assert: “The college won’t survive as a residential institution.”

But Drucker also believed in face-to-face interaction. And, while he liked the concept of MOOCs (although he didn’t use that term), he attached serious caveats. “Attempts to put ordinary college courses on the Internet are a mistake,” Drucker warned in Managing in the Next Society. “Marshall McLuhan was correct. The medium not only controls how things are communicated, but what things are communicated.”

Photo credit: Carlos Varela
Photo credit: Carlos Varela

You could put college courses online, but they would have to be completely redesigned. “Firstly, you must hold students’ attention,” Drucker said. “Any good teacher has a radar system to get the class’s reaction, but you don’t have that online. Secondly, you must enable students to do what they cannot do in a college course, which is go back and forth. So online you must combine a book’s qualities with a course’s continuity and flow. Above all, you must put it in a context. In a college course, the college provides the context. In that online course you turn on at home, the course must provide the background, the context, the references.”

In short, Drucker wasn’t against would-be MOOCs. But he had a demanding list of requirements for what would make them successful.

What do you think? Can online courses offer the same level of quality as classroom instruction?