When Elliot was a teenager, he went off to a weeklong sailing course approved by the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) in Britain. He passed with flying colors and received an International Certificate of Competence as a Sailing Crew Member – Level 1. The certificate attests to one’s “ability and provides documentary assurance from one government to another that the holder meets an agreed level of competence….”
With his certificate in hand, Elliot could serve on any sailing crew that requires Level 1 competency. He could also take his certificate to any other RYA-approved sailing school and immediately enter the course to achieve Level 2 competency. He could choose the next sailing school based on schedule or location or teacher or whatever. Not only does Elliot know something but his knowledge is also certified in a manner that’s globally recognized. That means he has a wide array of choice and options – he’s a free agent.
Why couldn’t higher education work the same way? Why can’t we flip the educational model to make it student-centric? Why can’t a student accumulate knowledge from a variety of sources and then have it certified in a globally recognized manner?
For instance, my online students at the University of Denver clearly want to acquire knowledge that will afford them broader skills and opportunities. Some are pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. But many students also want that knowledge to be certified. Since the University grants the certification, students are incented to take courses only from one institution. It’s an institution-centric system.
Now the University of Denver is a great school but why couldn’t one of my students – perhaps living in Montana – also take online courses from New York University and the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics plus some on-campus courses at Montana State and have it all count toward a Master’s degree? In fact, why couldn’t she also acquire knowledge from workshops offered by the local Chamber of Commerce or a chapter of the Project Management Institute and also have that knowledge count toward a degree?
Why couldn’t she bundle it all together and have it certified as the equivalent of an MBA? We can certainly imagine that courses from multiple sources might offer a richer, more varied, and perhaps higher quality education. Every university has some good teachers and some not so good teachers. Why not select the best teachers and best courses from multiple institutions rather than taking all courses from only one school? Let’s call it best-of-breed education.
To deliver student-centric, lifelong, best-of-breed education, we’ll need to develop several new processes and agencies. The good news is that several of them are already under way. Let’s talk about them tomorrow.
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).
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.