I haven’t written about MOOCs in awhile, mostly because I’m finding the whole discussion pretty tedious. They’re an interesting addition to the spectrum of continuing education offerings, and they’ll exist so long as venture capitalists and large, big-brand universities feel like subsidizing the hell out of them. Period.
The supposed “value” of MOOCs is that they deliver the same old lecture-driven process at a cheaper price. But what should be our real priority right now: Making education cheaper, or finding ways to deliver greater value?
Imagine you’re in the early 1950s, and someone gives you the task of saving be-bop from the predations of rock and roll. And suppose that same person hands you some piece of technology from 2012, which can deliver be-bop to the masses, at a cheaper price: MP3s, live streaming shows, that kind of thing. With this, you could make be-bop accessible at anytime, anywhere, and maybe even for free! But Be-bop’s decline had nothing to do with being too expensive; Buddy Holly was still going to kick its behind, because he had become the more relevant market choice.
In many ways, the same is true of education. The fact that we can make the existing model of education cheaper doesn’t adress the issue of relevancy – focusing on cost when relevance is the key issue is misguided, and a distraction.
Undergraduate education has always been about preparing people for the labour market. Back when it was a pursuit for people who either had hereditary wealth or were heading into guaranteed spots in the public service, we could pretend that higher education was about seeking Truth. But if we’re honest, all those Truth-seekers ended up getting a pretty good financial return on their educational investments because their degree certified them as being significantly brighter than their non-degree-earning peers.
But when 70% of the youth population has some form of post-secondary education, that deal no longer works. Having a degree no longer proves that you’re among the best and the brightest. Graduates need something more. And that “something more” is being a person who is engaged, effective and innovative. When parents send their kids off to school, that’s really what their hoping their little ones will become. Now this doesn’t mean that kids can’t study philosophy on the way to being engaged, effective, and innovative; it does, however, mean that PSE institutions need to think a lot harder about how to give students those skills.
It’s not rocket science. Waterloo does it through its co-op programs. Ryerson is doing it through its Digital Media Zone. Polytechnics like NAIT who use applied research projects to drive curriculum are doing it, too. Mostly, institutions are doing it by acknowledging the pedagogical value of interactions with the world of work, and opening themselves up to collaboration with businesses and government agencies to deliver it. And its working.
Engaged, effective, and innovative students. Let’s make it a watchword for 2013.