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Anti-MOOC Arguments Miss the Point

March 11, 2013

MOOCs and online learning have been in the news lately… and the skeptics are coming out in force and, I believe, are off the mark.

Karen Khemka, writing in the Financial Times opines that “MOOCs Are No Panacea for Universities”. Khemka’s argument is that given the current system of  awarding degrees to students who accumulate passing grades in a predetermined number of course, MOOCs won’t make any difference. She provides argues that MOOCs are unlikely to disrupt college education the way MP3 disrupted music because:

Higher education is fundamentally different from online music. With a downloaded song, customers can immediately enjoy their purchase; the value of a university education is determined by the job it secures later. In the short term, Moocs cannot compete with traditional universities until they show employers they add the same value to students as traditional courses.

In this argument she is overlooking the fact that employers might use MOOCs to determine is a prospective employee will add value to their organization… and if employers begin using MOOCS to make that determination, colleges and universities will need to prove their value to employers. Later she provides a list of ways MOOCs could be transformative suggesting that

Universities could use Mooc courseware to lower the cost of instruction and make better use of property. More learning would happen outside the classroom, alleviating operational and capital costs. Moocs could also make higher education more accessible to working students with limited flexibility and financial resources. Still more innovative, they could provide a more standardised way of measuring attainment across institutions. A talented student at one of America’s 1,000 or so community colleges could compete and excel in a course with Ivy League students, bringing more egalitarianism and meritocracy to a prestige-driven market.

All of these arguments are based on the notion that university degrees will remain the coin of the realm in the marketplace… and that their disruption will be limited to delivering courses WITHIN that framework. I believe employer driven MOOCs will change the framework completely.

Kay Steiger’s article “Research Shows Everyone Does Worse with Online Learning” in Raw Story misses the same point as Khemka, lumps MOOCs in with “online courses”, and grossly overstates the research findings in its headline. Like Khemka, Steiger views MOOCs in the context of the traditional degree granting program, assuming that degrees will remain the ultimate goal for those seeking employment in the future. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckeberg are three CEOs who illustrate the deficiency in this thought pattern. MOOCs are courses with an online component, but their advocates acknowledge that MOOCs are most effective when coupled with some kind of face to face interaction with either a professor or a self-organized learning team.

As for the notion that EVERYONE does worse, here’s what the researcher stated to Steiger in an interview:

“Our feeling is that technology can be used in good ways to improve online courses, it’s just that it dependshow the technology is incorporated and how technology is used by instructors,” Xu, a PhD student in Economics and Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, told Raw Story on Thursday. “Technology alone, it can not help students automatically. It depends on how it is integrated into instruction to make it work.”

“So we were thinking that as technology [improved], probably students might benefit more, or be subject to less negative impact in online courses.”

That is, online learning has flaws because the kinks have yet to be worked out. That’s different than the notion that everyone does worse, which APPEARS to be the case now… but as Yvs Smith of Naked Capitalism pointed out, this study was done by the Community College Research Center, and community colleges are likely to be challenged by MOOCs more so than colleges— particularly if employers begin designing their own MOOCs to help them screen prospective employees.


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  1. March 26, 2013 at 10:21 am
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