As an adjunct professor at the University of Denver, I teach in University College (UCOL), the school’s professional and continuing education program. UCOL focuses on non-traditional students, especially people who have been out of school for some time and are returning to study for an advanced professional degree.
I teach at the Master’s level and most of my students are in their 30s and 40s. Many see the Master’s degree as a key to greater career opportunity. They’re mature and motivated. They’re focused on acquiring certified knowledge, not on growing up.
I teach my courses in two completely different formats: on campus and online. The on-campus courses meet one night a week. The online courses never meet at all – we interact with each other through a web-based electronic college.
I’ve taught on-campus courses off and on for many years. I know what I’m doing and I feel comfortable and confident in the classroom. On the other hand, when I started teaching online – two years ago – I felt very unsure of myself. Though I was very familiar with the technology, I didn’t know how to use it to teach effectively.
Two years later, I feel much more comfortable teaching through the web. In fact, in some ways, I prefer it. The major advantage is that I don’t have to be anywhere at any specific time. As long as I have an Internet connection, I can teach my class.
The same is true for my students. In my online classes, I typically have students in six to eight different states and two to three different countries. Through the magic of the web, I can potentially reach hundreds, even thousands of students.
And that brings us to MOOCs – the Massive Open Online Courses that are roiling college campuses across the country. MOOCs take some of some of our best professors — often from places like Stanford, MIT, and Harvard – put them in front of a camera and ask them to teach thousands of students across the web.
MOOCs are massive; some enroll 50,000 students or more. They’re open; anyone with an Internet tap can register. They’re also free. Yikes!
MOOCs challenge virtually everything we do in universities today. A fundamental problem of higher education is that it hasn’t increased productivity for 700 years or so. While every other industry has increased productivity and thus can offer more for less, higher education offers the same for more. Without productivity increases, tuition will always rise at least as fast as inflation.
MOOCs promise to change that. Put a great professor online and – presto! – we can educate the masses. We can also save a lot of money. Why should states pay millions to support brick-and-mortar campuses? Why should students spend thousands to attend schools with second-string faculty? Why indeed?
So, will MOOCs destroy academic life as we know it? Or will they be more like correspondence courses – an interesting niche but only a niche? As a teacher of MOOC-like courses, I do have an opinion. But, let’s talk about that tomorrow.