MOOCs to the Rescue?

Posted on Feb 8, 2013 | 11 Comments

If you’re fed up with our current higher education system—its costs, its inefficiencies, its elitism—then maybe you’re rooting for the MOOCs.

That would be the acronym for “massive open online courses,” which allow students from all over the world to learn, cheaply, from Internet-based classes minus the classroom. They are growing in respectability and popularity. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the American Council on Education intends to recommend that colleges grant credit for certain classes offered by online-education provider Coursera, which has amassed more than 2.5 million registered users across 217 classes. Many traditional colleges, for their part, are frightened.

But is it time to write off the classroom?

In a thoughtful articleJane E.G. Lipson, a chemistry professor at Dartmouth College, admits that “the current university model may not be financially sustainable.” But she wants us to remember that college is a lot more than a lecturer on a podium. “The energy and excitement that animates a campus is generated by the creation, accrual and sharing of knowledge among a community of learners,” she writes. “Only part of that occurs in organized and predictable gatherings. The sparks come from interactions that are informal and unplanned, motivated by a shared desire to solve a problem, or argue a point, or develop a nascent idea.”

Peter Drucker took pleasure in our new technologies of connectedness. “I no longer have to travel to address audiences in foreign countries,” he observed in 1994.  “Within the last few months, I have spoken to very large audiences in Berlin, in São Paulo and in Johannesburg, without traveling to Germany, Brazil or South Africa.” Drucker’s mode at the time was videoconference and satellite communications.

He also recognized that the Internet would change everything, including how we learn. In 1989, he asked outright, “Will tomorrow’s university be a ‘knowledge center’ that transmits information, rather than a place that students actually attend?” And (as we’ve noted) in 1997, he went so far as to assert: “The college won’t survive as a residential institution.”

But Drucker also believed in face-to-face interaction. And, while he liked the concept of MOOCs (although he didn’t use that term), he attached serious caveats. “Attempts to put ordinary college courses on the Internet are a mistake,” Drucker warned in Managing in the Next Society. “Marshall McLuhan was correct. The medium not only controls how things are communicated, but what things are communicated.”

Photo credit: Carlos Varela

Photo credit: Carlos Varela

You could put college courses online, but they would have to be completely redesigned. “Firstly, you must hold students’ attention,” Drucker said. “Any good teacher has a radar system to get the class’s reaction, but you don’t have that online. Secondly, you must enable students to do what they cannot do in a college course, which is go back and forth. So online you must combine a book’s qualities with a course’s continuity and flow. Above all, you must put it in a context. In a college course, the college provides the context. In that online course you turn on at home, the course must provide the background, the context, the references.”

In short, Drucker wasn’t against would-be MOOCs. But he had a demanding list of requirements for what would make them successful.

What do you think? Can online courses offer the same level of quality as classroom instruction?

11 Comments

  1. Karen Linkletter
    February 8, 2013

    As a Drucker scholar and online instructor, I feel compelled to respond. First of all, Drucker was right in terms of the university becoming an electronic forum. (a “knowledge center” in his words). Secondly, he was correct in terms of changing the format for the delivery of curriculum – online classes require a very different format in terms of presentation. They also constitute a different demographic than the typical undergraduate student – at least at my institution. My typical online student is a working adult, who might have children, or a junior/senior looking for units. Engaging them is a challenge. How do we, as instructors, make sure that they have a quality educational experience?

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  2. Jim Busse
    February 9, 2013

    Interactive on line education is here now. Fixed class times, video with other students and teacher or using Artificial intelligence to interact with students and computer for teacher. After all the army does remote operations using computer controlled robots and surgeons who are not in the battlefield. We talked about this in 1982-3 in Drucker’s class above the theater. In 1967 the TV series “the Prisoner” did an even more futuristic story regarding on lne learning in the 5th or 6th episode called “The General.” Something worth watching.

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  3. Richard Straub
    February 9, 2013

    MOOCs by itself will not provide sufficient education experience for deep learning. However, once combined with social networking, collaboration tools and other social media enabling interaction and sharing they can become a powerful force to reshape education. A typical feature of the public debate around this subject is the polarization of the learning methods – either tradition in person OR MOOC. There is no doubt that the future will be both and what we will see is a proliferation of blended and hybrid models adapted to their specific context. Also the individual learner will increasingly take ownership to determine what the right configuration and mix of learning methods and resources would be to achieve her objectives. Universities and Colleges are not exactly the most innovative and agile institutions – hence their challenge will be to adapt to this new world where it is no longer sufficient to offer a “standard” curriculum. While it will be a threat for many it is equally a once in a lifetime opportunity for the few who take the lead. The good advice we can give to the Education Industry: Hear the call and wake up!

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  4. David Talley
    February 9, 2013

    As an adult learner I have utilized both the classroom and the Internet for classes. Both have their pros and cons which others have already mentioned. A blended approach offers the optimum mix of personal interaction and convenience. Online offers wonderful content. However the classroom if led by a good teacher provides context which some students need in order to learn the subject and or field. The sharing of ideas is different in a verbal setting than in front of a computer. Or maybe it’s just the medium? I like both. Finding the right balance is a challenge, especially as better technology tilts the economic model away from the classroom.

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  5. charles weller
    February 9, 2013

    One of the most important features of MOOCs is that they end monopoly control of the curriculum by states and the federal government and education, and thus subject K-16 to market competition.
    What is also emerging is employers with 4 million unfilled jobs setting the curriculum, not educators, and the 20 million unemployed and underemployed can choose job education with certificates rather than diplomas and degrees–for very low cost.
    K-16 institutions can respond to these market forces and tap new sources of funds, or students will just not show up at their doors. Drucker estimated the new funds are potentially hundreds of billions of dollars.
    A win-win-win for everybody that adapts!

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  6. john karayan
    February 9, 2013

    There is no question that the current model for U.S. higher education is neither financially, nor ethically, sustainable. Instead of doing more with less, universities as a whole have done less with more. Few U.S. universities devote more than 50% of their operating budget to instruction. Accrediting bodies universally focus on publication; university professors who focus their efforts on student learning risk their careers. Over the past quarter century, vast increases in direct and indirect government spending on higher education have been outstripped by explosive growth in the number and cost of administrators in U.S. universities. Students’ increased access to easy credit has allowed universities to increase student’s tuition and fees far beyond inflation.

    Solutions are straight-forward, but hardly simple. A university education is one of the most expensive purchases most college students make. Imagine what could happen if the Federal Trade Commission applied the same truth in advertizing standards to universities as it does to toothpaste.

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  7. Gayle Brunelle
    February 9, 2013

    The goal is not to allow students to get “increased access” for less money. It’s to consolidate the profits in the hands of a few institutions staffed by “really important people” and put the rest of the universities out of business. The money would go to administrators who run the place and hire flunkies to do the grading. Students would do all the learning on their own and pay for the privilege of being, essentially, self-taught. The cost would be lower, but it would be faculty salaries that were lost because the universities would hire low-cost labor, perhaps even outsourced on line to English-speaking countries abroad, who would offer “customer service” to the student/clients. Once again technology is put to use to eliminate good jobs, direct profits into the pockets of a few folks, and dump more of the burden of “shadow labor” on the backs of students, except those privileged few who could continue to afford a traditional education.

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  8. Simon Jeynes
    February 10, 2013

    http://learninfreedom.org/colleges_4_hmsc.html
    Maybe it’s an odd parallel but I think that the homeschooling movement has something to teach and warn us about in this whole conversation. Homeschooled children were stereotyped as lacking social skills and rooted in a conservative Christian ideology. And maybe that’s where it did begin. Over time, however, the homeschooling movement has matured to include many kinds of families, increasing levels of organization that mitigate and eliminate the social deficit, and develop students that universities seek (Stanford’s Information Letter for Homeschoolers states that, “Homeschooled students may even have a potential advantage over others in this aspect of the application since they have consciously chosen and pursued an independent course of study.” )
    It would be a mistake to imagine that the current state of MOOCs is what it will be – that will clearly not change the paradigm or power structures in place. But that’s not the point – if homeschooling can produce really good students (even if not universally – that’s not exclusive to this form of schooling!), then access to the worldwide band of knowledge that can be accessed in many forms including MOOCs will also eventually produce significant numbers of really good students.

    The difference with the MOOC concept (after all distance education goes back 100 years) is the power of the medium, the universality of the knowledge that can be accessed, and the availability of both to virtually anyone on the globe. While most parents don’t want to homeschool thus making it always a (growing) minority position, every parent can give their child a tablet, PC or iPad, smart phone, Nook or laptop. It is absolutely a game changer and it’s only a matter of time till we figure out how to make it work.

    That’s when universities, private schools, and public schools in all their various forms will no longer be able to survive if they are merely mediocre. Students will only tolerate excellence – because if they can’t find it in front of them (which as humans they will tend to always prefer), they will immediately seek it in the cloud.

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  9. Ken Simmons
    February 10, 2013

    I must say, it stings more than a little to see representatives of my alma mater musing how some might be “fed up” with the costs of higher education. That’s because getting an MBA at Drucker was perhaps the worst decision of my life. Not because I didn’t learn an awful lot from some very good professors and fellow students, but because I spent an obscene amount of money for a degree that didn’t earn me a dollar more than I would have made without it. I’m sure there are plenty of people with the opposite experience, but it’s become quite obvious to me that in many cases master’s degrees in business are incredibly over-priced and over-hyped. That said, the right education still is the key to most great jobs. So much so that I got a second master’s degree – without cost via grants – and am now working in a technical field that requires a much more focused training than an MBA offers.

    With its inordinate costs and questionable return on investment, overpriced schools and degree programs can only last so long before alternatives force them to innovate or die.

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  10. Alba Patricia Valencia
    February 10, 2013

    Education today faces many challenges and one of them is to respond to the profound social, economic and cultural conditions that are expected in the so-called “Information Society and Knowledge” in this age of Information and Communication, but to me virtual education is founded with a fashion induced consumerism and technological revolution.

    Sure enough, virtual learning communities can be useful in those cases want to promote the integration of students into the culture and society now closely linked to the information and communication, and in some cases to complement some activities curricular teaching and learning related to cultural content. However, I believe that online education is a good alternative, but it would not be appropriate to abolish or replace traditional education.

    La educación actual afronta múltiples retos y uno de ellos es dar respuesta a los profundos cambios sociales, económicos y culturales que se prevén para la llamada «Sociedad de la Información y el Conocimiento» en esta era de la Información y la Comunicación. Pero para mí la educación virtual se fundamenta con una moda inducida por el consumismo y la revolución tecnológica.

    Efectivamente, las comunidades virtuales de aprendizaje pueden ser útiles en aquellos casos que se desee promover la integración del estudiante en la cultura y en la sociedad actualmente muy vinculadas a la información y la comunicación, así como en algunos casos para complementar algunas actividades curriculares de enseñanza y aprendizaje relacionados con contenidos culturales. Sin embargo, considero que la educación virtual es una buena alternativa, sin embargo no sería apropiado abolir o reemplazar la educación tradicional.

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  11. What Peter Drucker Would Be Reading | The Drucker Exchange | Daily Blog by The Drucker Institute
    February 12, 2013

    [...] Dx Comment of the Week: Last week, when we asked whether online courses might be able to match classroom instruction in quality, reader Simon Jeynes said that the success of the home-schooling movement offers a parallel, [...]

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