Published on 2012/08/22
Traditional educators must step outside of their comfort zone to understand the range of easy knowledge can be exchanged. While MOOCs probably will not replace college, they are certainly worth better understanding as higher education institutions find ways to deal with shrinking budgets and lower accessibility for students. Photo by Lasse Kristensen.

I read David Youngberg’s commentary over on the Chronicle of Higher Education with great interest and eventual disappointment. I applaud his efforts to step out and participate in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) and even agree with his general assertion that MOOCs by themselves will not replace college.  I believe his rationale for why online education won’t replace college is, however, misguided and inwardly focused.

MOOCs are taking off in part because there is a pent-up hunger for high quality learning experiences in new formats.  They represent another piece of how the higher education market is evolving to meet the needs of those not served by traditional institutions. We must look at this technology through fresh eyes and not overlay our current worldview onto their disruptive potential.

Below are my responses to Youngberg’s five points (see the Chronicle article for his full explanations of these points):

1. It’s too easy to cheat

Many people are enrolled in MOOCs to learn for its own sake, not to get a credential. The 1000s of people engaged in more popular MOOCs are often volunteering their time to learn and share learning with others. This lack of formal credentialing might change in the future (and a number of efforts are trying to address this potential market). Cheating in MOOC is really cheating oneself out of the reason for participating in the first place. In this sense, cheating in a MOOC is no different than cheating in traditional face-to-face classrooms.

2. Star students can’t shine

The time to reset expectations about what it means to be a “star student” is long past. Seeing higher education as a sorting mechanism to find “the best students” is not helping all learners move forward. If you want an elite spot in a prestigious graduate program, these things still matter. If you want a good paying job that rewards the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn rapidly (most jobs outside of academe now value this ability); then being a “star student” in the eyes of a faculty member is less relevant.

3. Employers avoid weird people

One might begin by asking whether those of us in higher education are in a position to determine what “normal” means in a workplace but that would be an unnecessary distraction. A more reasoned response is to look at any vibrant, growing organization.  They share a growing desire to find people who are diverse, motivated, and willing to challenge the status quo. I suggest spending time at any employer who values smart creative people and you will find many nose rings, tattoos, and other assorted “weirdness.” These also tend to be the companies that are hiring in a bad economy.

4. Computers can’t grade everything

We agree on this point. When the credential demonstrating specific types of knowledge matters, there are things that computers don’t do well.  But, some MOOC models (generally not the ones being touted by the commercial startups) are solving this problem by using peer tutoring, social media, and other methods.

Looking outside the traditional model of higher education, grades are less important that gaining the knowledge. Ultimately, what someone gains from a MOOC might be a global network of colleagues and real-world demonstrable skills, rather than a grade.

5. Money can substitute for ability

Youngberg’s point here seems to be that making learning experiences affordable for more people will cheapen the value of the knowledge gained in school. This theory, while understandable, is no longer acceptable when more jobs than ever require advanced skills.  The following statement by Dr. Youngberg speaks volumes about how out of touch many in higher education really are, “A bachelor’s degree isn’t exceptional anymore; it’s expected.”

30% of Americans have a bachelor’s degree. If you have a Ph.D. it is likely that having at least a bachelor’s degree is normal among the people you interact with every day but the reality is that having a 4-year degree is still exceptional for the population at large.

Conclusion

Will MOOCs or even online education more broadly speaking replace all of higher education? No.

People in higher education should be more concerned with shrinking budgets, tuition increases that are pricing more people out of obtaining a degree, and the range of new ways knowledge can be acquired.  We need conversation about the emerging, globally scalable potential of online platforms but understanding this new landscape requires stepping out of the paradigm we know today in higher education.

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Readers Comments

Chuck Schwartz 2012/08/22 at 8:52 am

Well said! Youngberg’s column made my blood boil; it was ignorant and based on a complete misunderstanding of what MOOCs are all about.

It’s not necessarily about replacing college, it’s about presenting alternative pathways to knowledge and understanding that the status quo needs to change.

I think the first few sentences in his column said it all: “When I decided to become a professor, I was comforted by its employment projections. Professors hired to teach the baby boomers are retiring: It’ll be a seller’s market. Now I’m told Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOC’s, threaten that rosy future.”

The industry is changing and he doesn’t like it. And scene.

J. Kenneth Riviere 2012/08/23 at 11:29 am

Re: “making learning experiences affordable for more people will cheapen the value of the knowledge gained in school.” How could sharing knowledge among more people cheapen it? It might mean that people who had been in an elite group who had education will have less advantage over others w/o that advantage. However, society in general will be better off overall if more people are better educated. Isn’t that a primary reason for offering free public education in the first place?

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