Tuesday, September 18, 2012

MOOCs will accompany Second Life into obscurity

The current buzz running through the higher education press over MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses is eerily similar to the wild enthusiasm that Second Life generated. Sure, you've practically forgotten Second Life, but circa 2005, it was touted as the next evolution in the web and guaranteed to revolutionize not only online education, but all online human interaction. Today, it's all but fizzled into obscurity.

Now, I can't wade through a day without a podcast, blog, education journal, or e-newsletter gushing about how MOOCs will change everything. (If you've been off-world for several months and need a quick update on MOOCs, this short video by Dave Cormier can quickly bring you up to speed or read his more detailed piece posted by EDUCAUSE.)

Granted when players such as Stanford, UC Berkley, Harvard, and MIT get involved with mega-million dollar investments people tend to pay attention, but is this model of the open online course going to empty traditional classrooms? Will taking a series of classes for credit that then translates into a college degree become as obsolete as a slide rule? Leaving aside the reality that schools can't even agree to accept each others' English Composition courses, I can unhesitantly and unequivocally say, "No!"

First, the recent surge of enrollments in MOOCs can be attributed as much to voyeurism as scholarly work. Strip out the attendance from those eager university administrators, worried professors and curious bloggers and the growth won't look nearly so staggering.

Second, minus the groups previously mentioned, the vast majority of those people who are taking these courses already have a college degree or at least achieved a level of expertise in the subject so that they don't need the college credits. The software engineer from Seattle or the coding genius from Bangalore who enroll in a MOOC to learn about Artificial Intelligence will be as much contributors to the content as they will be recipients.

What isn't being talked about it is that the final consumer of a college degree isn't the student who enrolls in the classes. Students are only intermediate consumers and certainly not very demanding ones.

As most instructors can attest, with few exceptions, students do not enroll in Accounting or Chemistry because of a passion for the subject matter--much to the chagrin of those who have made it their life's work to teach and conduct research in these fields. Instead, these buyers of higher education enroll because they know they need to pass the course to be awarded the credits that will earn them the degree. The degree then becomes a kind of currency that the labor market understands making business the ultimate consumer. Until schools can agree upon a credit exchange rate, courses taken through MOOCs will be virtually worthless currency.

This isn't to say, however, that MOOCs are worthless. The real benefit to the schools fronting these initiatives is tapping into this student network of knowledge in an era of diminished endowments, reduced state budgets, and cut-backs on corporate research and development. From this angle, MOOCs just might make some noticeable contributions.

Copyright © Deborah A. Ayers - All rights reserved.