A commentary in last week's Nature on MOOC's, massive open online courses, raises some interesting questions about the state of higher education today. MOOC's, the piece says, are transforming the modern university, even while it's still not clear how. But, everyone's jumping on the bandwagon, and the number of universities offering MOOC's is rapidly on the rise, as this figure from the Nature piece shows.
“In 25 years of observing higher education, I've never seen anything move this fast,” says Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist at Stanford and one of the leaders of an ongoing, campus-wide discussion series known as Education's Digital Future.But, we have been moving away from classroom-based education for a long time. We've had online courses for years, though not free ones. And, in the best universities, attendance in major lecture classes is not taken. The student's knowledge is evaluated by exams, and a grade and diploma are certification that the recipient has demonstrated sufficient achievement according to the school's requirements and standards.
And has everyone forgotten Johannes Gutenberg? To pass an exam, you can go to class or you can just read the quaint item known as a 'textbook' or other material. Textbooks are the age-old paper-line (rather than on-line) means of education, in which the student can study the material anywhere or at any time. When moveable-type printing was invented, there was similar panic in the streets about how this would put the intellectual elite out of power (because the hoi-polloi might actually now be able to read and judge for themselves!).
We have also gone the next, electronic step, more than a decade ago. We don't mean ebooks, though that may become part of the story. Rather, we have instituted what is now nearly universal in major universities, that is, that lecture notes (including videos etc.) are posted online on a course's web page. Students can view or download these notes at any time, and from anywhere, sober or not, and the professor can update or modify or supplement them at any time. Some classes even give online exams.
For years, I also added a kind of chat room for my large Human Genetics course, where students could discuss the material with each other, query the TA or professor, answer each others questions and so on, along with the lecture notes being posted. The students were all in residence (except when off on joy-breaks that kept them from being in town and/or in class). The usage? Almost none, except for right before exams. The conclusion: this course had the major attributes of a MOOC as far as an individual student was concerned, plus the ability to actually go to class (very unfashionable!), so the poor usage may just indicate that the time wasn't ripe, the fad just hadn't started, or (being pre-meds) the students didn't want to help each other or actually learn anything.
That being said, it does seem that large lecture classes in particular have been online or the equivalent for a long time, and the current threat may make dinosaurs of them. What is different is the growing fashion for large classes to be done remotely without in-person attendance. Given my experience and the other precursors mentioned above, it isn't that long-distance or online learning is new, just newly 'hot'.
So far, the small class in which attendance is often checked, and the laboratory or seminar lab-meetings, are safe. Here discussion is important, social networking and cooperative work take place, and effective question and answer interactions are important.
We now have online-software, like Adobe Meeting, that can substitute for in-person meetings, include visual interaction, shared viewing of computer screens and material, and so on. This is so much cheaper than flying from New York to London or New Orleans for a meeting that only the appeal of local restaurants or golf outings justify the travel costs businesses and universities pay for these meetings. There is still some benefit to schmoozing and deal-making, but if the current trend persists, the uniqueness of such opportunities for doing business will wane.
Even if it were no advance, universities will have to change because students are coming up who have been on-line their whole lives, and because the raw and relentless Googleavarice will, as with Amazon versus book stores, simply put the current status quo into the obsolete-bin. Of course, the elite will still have their 4-year playgrounds, and lesser universities will use their plush dorms, football and fraternity/sorority diversions, and the party-and-sex opportunities to draw large numbers of students to their campuses.
However, with non-stop football on television, bars and apartments everywhere, even these draws may not be enough. Many universities, at least the good-to-better ones, may reconfigure, accepting the obsolescence of their large lecture halls, and increase their upper-level small-class and lab facilities, and become advanced-learning institutions, for perhaps fewer but also more advanced, skilled, and seriously interested students.
The elite may just have to find (and pay for) other ways to make sure their kids meet other elite families' kids, and retain the huge social advantage that they have always had, and that Harvard and Stanford have so willingly facilitated.
But then, Yahoo! just instituted a ban on telecommuting, which was once seen as a revolution in the workplace. The reason is that people work better as a group when they work as a group, eye to eye, eating in the same (blah) cafeteria, and able to grumble and gossip when the boss is away at a meeting. Synergy is key to suggess. So, it's hard to foresee what's going to happen with MOOC's.