Wednesday, October 31, 2012

MOOCs: hype over substance

It is very difficult to avoid exposure to the hype surrounding MOOCs. Whenever it pops up into my field of vision (at least once a day now), I yawn. I've been there before. A couple of decades ago it was the educational programming on interactive CD-ROMs that was supposed to revolutionize education and make teachers obsolete. Who needs teachers when disks filled with slick multimedia would lead a learner through the material at an individualized pace and path, and conduct assessments? 
A decade later major universities and publishing houses were racing (to great fanfare) to build "virtual campuses" and provide online education to the masses of eager but remote students. Those campuses quietly folded a few years later.
Then came the super-hyped Second Life and virtual 3D worlds. Again, some universities were building entire campuses in that new medium, and some early adopters were holding classes. The media declared "brick and mortar" campuses on the way out.
In between there was MIT's Open Courseware, which also created a media feeding frenzy and was expected to change education. In short, examples abound.
I'm waiting for this most recent hype to reach the "Peak of Inflated Expectations", which it hasn't yet, and then slide quietly into the "Trough of Disillusionment" (per Gartner's well known "hype cycle").
Don't get me wrong: technology changes the way education is delivered and consumed, but it changes it in evolutionary and incremental, rather than disruptive manner. Distance learning and "teaching factories" like the MOOCs will find a permanent place in the higher education landscape, but they will not completely change education, as some expect. 
Here at the University of Michigan we had another record enrollment of undergraduate students this year - so "brick-and-mortar" is not exactly in death throes. At the School of Public Health, where I work, we have embraced distance learning years ago, but with a model very different from MOOCs: relatively small (up to 50 students), "high-touch" online classes, where the students get as much (or more) individualized attention from instructors as their peers in residential courses. 
I'm glad that MOOCs exist, because it's good that we experiment and learn from that experimentation, but I'm extremely skeptical of them being a "game changer" and re-shaping higher education. 
For one thing, nothing is really "free". These massive courses may be free to consume (now), but they are not free to produce. The professor and the support staff still have to get paid. Do we expect that American students will continue to go heavily into debt in order to subsidize "free" education for the rest of the world? Or will we go with a Google model and pay for these courses with advertisements? 
There are universities which have been in continuous operation for 800 years, surviving various technological and social revolutions, including the Industrial Revolution, and even the Bolshevik revolution.. They adapted and will continue to do so, long after the CD-ROMs, and 3D virtual worlds, and MOOCs will have been declared fads and we all move on to another hype du jour.

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