In all the hype and backlash about MOOCs, it seems that we forgot to have a really important conversation about what MOOCs actually tell us about traditional higher education.
The thing that freaked absolutely everybody out (some positively, some negatively) about MOOCs was the idea that a single instructor could teach tens of thousands of students around the world, simultaneously. “Oh my God”, people panicked/enthused, “what will happen to the university once content is available freely everywhere”. Well, not much, as it turned out. Certainly, no more than print, radio, television, or videotapes – all previous knowledge-transmission technologies that allegedly threatened the monopoly of official education providers – did.
But the bigger point of MOOCs is that they reminded us that what makes universities special as teaching institutions isn’t that they are superior content providers. MOOC instructors are usually tenured professors – just like in universities. And the topics they cover are university level. So why do many persist in thinking of them as “less than university”? Partly, it’s a legalistic reason: they aren’t delivering “credits”, which lead to a “degree. But this can be remedied: Coursera’s new X track now has many prestigious institutions giving away certificates of completion in return for completing bundles of related MOOC courses. It’s not a degree, but it’s getting closer. What then will distinguish MOOCs and “real” universities?
The answer, basically, is the learning environment. What MOOCs lack are not profs, but meaningful, durable relationships, both among students, and between students and professors. Yes, they can deliver some classroom interaction through chat groups, etc. But these by-and-large don’t lead to the kinds of interactions you get on campus just through serendipity.
There’s an architecture of discovery on physical campuses that isn’t, at the moment, replicable online. It’s in the conversations you have in hallways, in libraries, and cafes. It’s the learning that happens through extra-curricular activities, and arguing with your TA over a beer at the campus bar. It’s the shared experiences that build up over time. That’s a university’s real advantage. Maybe a MOOC delivered via Oculus Rift might be able to get you halfway there, but we’re still a ways from that.
But – and here’s the conversation we aren’t having – if we accept that universities are about environment and not about content, why aren’t we putting the environment at the centre of our discussions about universities? Why do we still hire professors (more or less) exclusively based on research ability? Why, even on the rare occasions where we take learning outcomes seriously, do we still assume this gets achieved exclusively through what happens in classrooms? Why aren’t we thinking night and day about how to make higher education a more immersive experience, investing more in the pastoral care (broadly defined) of students?
Yeah, yeah, I know. The faculty would never wear it. But isn’t that the real problem?