Be prepared, this is going to be a bit of a rant.
With the rise of MOOCs, administrators and professors are suddenly being pressed into taking sides. “Are you for or against online education?” It’s a question that some administrators (like the University of Virginia’s Teresa Sullivan) are likely to suffer the axe for siding one way or another.
Of course, suddenly, it seems as though there is a lot at stake. If there is anything we’ve learned about the Internet, it’s that trends catch fast; and those who surf the wave of the World Wide Web can make big bucks if the timing is right. Universities that are jumping on board with MOOCs are making large investments in hopes of cornering the emerging market, and those who are lingering behind simply can’t afford to make a big mistake.
Ivy League schools have collaborated on failed online learning projects before, yet here they are again. Schools with smaller resource pools are taking the backseat, waiting and watching to see if this is yet another hare-brained education scheme that’s destined to fail. But with the possibility to democratize and raise the bar – globally! – for higher education, why aren’t all educators excited about the integration of online learning as a traditional learning method?
It seems to me that money, not quality, is the biggest concern among colleges who view online learning distrustfully. Reports say that it costs $50,000 to produce each Coursera class. Is it any wonder that traditional universities aren’t willing to fork over that kind of change for an experiment in MOOCs? Especially when it could potentially disrupt the system that has brought home major bacon for decades?
Interestingly enough, in all the reading I’ve done about MOOCs, no one talks about what the modern student needs. No one is acknowledging that the workforce is changing and that students need more flexibility in their schedules. At the end of the day, students are the consumer base; and the needs of this consumer base are changing.
Students who attend a traditional four-year institution are rarely able to balance a full-time job and a full course load, which means it’s extremely difficult for students to obtain work experience or to personally finance their education in a reasonable timeframe. However, what anyone paying attention to the plight of recent grads will see is that these students are in desperate need of professional experience and are extremely indebted to banks that have financed their educations.
If traditional universities were to begin seriously integrating and developing courses with the mindset of providing career development and applicable knowledge to students, the entire world of higher education would change, but it’s a change that is desperately needed. It’s not enough to have a diploma anymore, which is, ironically, the reason online learning has been viewed as historically inadequate – a diploma from an online university might be an education, but how credible where the educators?
Students who attend traditional universities are able to ‘network’ with professors and gain ‘valuable insight’ into their fields. On the other hand, those who attend online universities are viewed as being restricted from professional/academic relationships as the platform is completely virtual. Realistically, only a handful of students from brick-and-mortar campuses are able to network with professors to the extent that it lands them a job. Getting accepted into graduate school is something a professor can help with, but actually paying off those student loans is another story.
MOOCs, on the other hand, offer classes taught by professors who are typically seen as the best in the nation. The classes are flexible enough to allow students, professionals and lifelong learners to continue working in their careers while gaining relevant knowledge. MOOCs, in essence, combine vocation and education in a way that higher education has simply failed to do.
Let’s speculate for a moment and suppose that Coursera and Udacity and edX were to come together and render basic face-to-face STEM courses obsolete. In this theory, universities across the country would simply rely on a few rockstar professors who teach via video, perhaps offering students an hour or two per week with a graduate student/teaching assistant, and there you have it – a whole fleet of professors are wiped out of the system.
“What will we do if computers replace us?” these professors ask. Oh, and it’s a chilling thought isn’t it? Professors who have spent years of research and ink on a specific field of study could potentially be turned out into the streets! Can you imagine? Saddled up beside the Occupy Wall Street kids will be the antiquated professor with a stained suit, plenty of theories and absolutely zero professional experience outside of academia.
But would it really be that sad? Think of all of the students who relied on these professors to help them build their careers, to guide them into post-graduate life. Think of all the students who thought they were receiving a quality education, only to find that the workforce is flooded with college graduates and that those who get hired have experience or connections. How do you think these students felt when they realized education wasn’t enough? How bitter do you think they are at 23, burdened by debt and completely shattered to realize that what they have to offer isn’t enough?
That’s why I wouldn’t feel so bad if MOOCs and online learning started raising the bar for education and ultimately inspired universities to trim a little of their faculty fat. It would allow students the flexibility to do more – to take an internship or a part-time job in order to graduate with experience. And perhaps even more importantly, it would force universities to start taking online learning more seriously and to begin adopting creative teaching methods.
* Our ‘ranting’ guest is Kate Willson, a long-time advocate of peer-based learning, online classes and open education. You can read more from Kate at collegecrunch.org. If you enjoyed this post, let Kate know by commenting below!