Massive open online courses (MOOCs) make a lot of people in higher education nervous right now. In the past year alone, online learning factored in to administrative drama at the University of Virginia, encountered a momentary ban for Coursera in Minnesota and saw many of the world's top schools pick MOOC platforms. As institutions adopt MOOC strategies at a rapid pace and students warm up to them faster than Facebook and Twitter, everyone knows that a change is coming. The big question is, "What will everything look like when the dust settles?"
As David Brooks writes for The New York Times this week, "The best part of the rise of online education is that it forces us to ask: What is a university for?" His answer is that they are for transmitting technical and practical knowledge. That's a great point of entry for tackling the disruptions that MOOCs present as we consider what online courses really offer and what higher ed institutions need to do. Yes, MOOCs present challenges for traditional copyright and academic integrity policies; but they may ultimately find a niche to fill in the instruction process and allow professors to refocus their time and energy.
Brooks believes that "online and hybrid offerings seem to be as good as standard lectures" when it comes to getting technical knowledge across to students. In the coming years, MOOCs may get even better at it as learning tech and assessments improve.
The question then becomes one of business models for schools, however, since parallel offerings with equal benefits cannot be offered for free to some students while others pay thousands of dollars per year in tuition. Instead, Ben Nelson of Minerva University envisions a future where MOOCs become homework over a summer or other introductory period, and students could use them to study up before coming to campus for live interactions, where educators impart practical knowledge and insights based on technical knowledge from online courses.
Fundamentally, this concept should not seem altogether foreign to university faculty members. Lectures have been recorded and sent home with students for years. Anyone who has ever led or participated in a discussion section knows that getting students to read their material is a challenge, though. The model proposed by Nelson will require well-constructed assessment processes to be sure. The model could also be part of a hybrid future worth striving for if it benefits students in the end.
Universities' futures lie in getting practical knowledge and seminars right, according Brooks. If they nail that need while using MOOCs to ease the process of technical education, higher ed could start looking a little brighter for everyone.
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