MOOCs … the future of higher education?

I get asked some variant on this title all the time, because people are reading about MOOCs in the news and want to know if it’s true, if MOOCs will take over and essentially be the future of higher education in the U.S.

The thought immediately takes me back to 1993, when I was a MS student in Instructional Design, Development & Evaluation at Syracuse University. I had my first real exposure then to the idea of computer-based learning. And I read the hype about how virtual agent-type teachers would become the norm. It sounded kind of cool to my 22 year old self, but also felt a bit like watching an episode of The Jetsons (you know you want to see the intro again). In other words: Didn’t think it would really happen. And 20 years later, it hasn’t yet.

Next the thought takes me to the late 1990s, when I was a PhD student in Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. That’s when I first got involved in online learning, and started to hear the buzz about how campuses as we know them would go away, faculty jobs would dry up, and institutions would follow the cost-savings model of relying on large, online classes. But 15 years later, that hasn’t happened yet either. Online learning has seen exponential growth, but campuses are still full of students.

Online learning competes effectively at the masters level, for continuing education, and for non-traditional students. However, many US high school seniors still spend several months visualizing which campus might be their future home.

I won’t quibble about whether or not people can learn effectively within a MOOC. I know that they can. I’ve taken MOOCs myself, and I have learned. (For that matter, I read a lot of books and learn from them, too.) And I’m sure we can work out a system to effectively assess and certify the learning that takes place in MOOCs. But one question looms large for me: Is this what the education consumer really wants?

My answer: No, I don’t think it is. True, the consumer wants affordable higher education options. High quality options are a concern, too. But there’s something else that I think the American people want and value if they can afford it. I’ll bring this to a personal level:

I have a 4-year-old daughter. I also teach online, learn online, and love technology in general. However, in 13 years when my daughter graduates from high school I don’t visualize saying, “Honey, congratulations! Daddy and I have bought you a new desk and a new computer and as soon as you’re ready you can start taking MOOCs and get that college degree.” Instead, the image in my head involves packing a car, tearful goodbyes, and returning home to my empty nest adorned in an ill-fitting university t-shirt with a mixture of sadness for myself, but pride and excitement for my daughter. Because (again, for those who can afford it), higher education isn’t just about that piece of paper that says you earned a degree. It’s about a multi-year growth experience, with learning that takes place in and out of the classroom as a young adult starts living alone and planning an independent future.

While MOOCs can teach us about programming, biology, history, and any number of other topics, they just don’t compare to a college campus for broader life experience.

So when I’m asked if MOOCs are the future of higher education, I reply that they have a place in the realm of higher and continuing education, and that I know many adults who have participated in and learned from MOOCs, but I wouldn’t start making plans to knock down the dormitories just yet.

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