So, what about it? 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. (See yesterday’s post for the background to this burning question).
Here’s what MOOCs are good for: transferring structured bodies of information and testing to see that it was accurately received. Actually, the testing is still a bit slippery. It’s not always clear who is actually taking the test. However, I think that will be worked out over the next couple of years with proctored exams and/or new forms of identification.
Here’s what classroom-based education is good for: growing up. MOOCs can’t teach you much about integrity, social interaction, clear thinking, mature judgment, and the responsibilities of adult life. Campus education – especially residential campus education – can teach you far more about living than MOOCs ever could. As David Brooks points out, morality is a group activity.
People who want to grow up will continue to choose campus-oriented higher education. People who want to earn professional credentials may find MOOCs are a much better choice.
What does this mean in practice? I think undergraduate schools will be relatively unaffected by MOOCs. There will always be good reasons to ship your kids off to college.
Further, some skills are more readily taught face-to-face, including negotiation, mediation, critical thinking, disputation, public speaking, rhetoric, and writing. Undergraduate schools will place increasing emphasis on these foundational skills. In this sense, they’ll be more like colleges of the 1930s and 40s than those of the 1980s and 90s.
Graduate education, on the other hand, is about to get Amazoned. Why would a student take a course in, say artificial intelligence, from a local professor when they could cover the same material (for free) from a world-renowned expert? When it comes to transferring a structured body of knowledge, MOOCs are hard to beat.
Is there any value of going to graduate school on campus? Well, foundational skills are still important. I teach Master’s students and I can attest that they would benefit by improving their ability to negotiate, speak persuasively, and write effectively. Additionally, on-campus programs may be better at helping students develop life-long networks. Actually, I’m a little skeptical that this is a significant advantage – social networks can fill the same need. Still, there’s probably a modest benefit from meeting your co-conspirators on campus.
To survive, I think that many graduate schools will shift their emphasis away from codified bodies of knowledge and toward the foundational skills. They can offer the bodies of knowledge through MOOCs. In their on-campus courses, they’ll focus on teaching the “softer” skills. In my experience, these are far more valuable than structured bodies of knowledge.
In terms of market positioning, I think it’s simple. The best grad schools in the future will position themselves along these lines: Any MOOC can teach you how the world works. We can also teach you how to work in the world.
(By the way, these opinions are my own and not those of any of my clients or employers).