New Models of Online Education: Disrupting the User Experience for the Better
For the last year or so, we’ve been hearing a great deal about new technologies of online learning that some public intellectuals think will “disrupt” higher education around the world. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offered by the likes of Coursera, edX and Udacity are portrayed as a revolutionary force akin to the iPod, file sharing or Craigslist. Both supporters and critics of these new educational delivery systems suggest the academy should fear the MOOC. Higher education, it is suggested, is at risk for the same seismic shifts felt by the music, movie and print industries when digitization led to a massive restructuring of those giants of the cultural industries.
What, then, can be learned from the experiences of those who came before us? Is technology really a force for disruption in the higher education sector? Some would argue, as of yet, the technology of the MOOC alone is not enough. Critics point to disappointing completion rates of MOOCs (a 20 percent completion rate being above average), which is hardly threatening to most postsecondary institutions. MOOC supporters and techno-optimists, however, suggest we are experiencing the beginning of a movement that stands to change education forever. Why, they argue, would students pay to sit in large classes and hear a professor speak, when they can see the same professor online for free?
But why did the remediation of music so totally disrupt the music industry? And why did Netflix topple corporations such as Blockbuster Video? Is it simply about people getting something for nothing? No, there’s more to this picture. If free were the whole story, iTunes and Netflix would have no business model. The real reason the above technologies were disruptive has more to do with the ways they changed the user experience. ITunes, for example, changed the way people bought and listened to music. No longer having to buy an entire CD in order to get a copy of one favorite song, people were free to create their own playlists and carry thousands of songs on a device the size of a deck of cards. Netflix changed the user experience too. It allowed people to be unbound from a specific viewing schedule or location. Both technologies gave people access to content, but they were more than just a content delivery system. They also improved the delivery of the content in order to create a better experience.
The currently popular MOOCs are delivering traditional course content in a traditional way — the “sage on the stage” model, where one expert gives a video lecture and the students then complete assignments. Despite the technology, there is very little disruption here. This may be why Coursera has been experiencing some growing pains of late, turning to a learner management system (LMS) model of offering education in partnership with some colleges in the United States. This shows one cannot simply put old wine in a new bottle and call it a revolution. In contrast to this, the original connectivist MOOCs (or cMOOCs) were not necessarily created with a “sage on the stage” model in mind, and were instead designed to enable free and open flows of information across non-hierarchical networks of people hungry to learn from one another. This strikes me as potentially more disruptive to conventional models of education.
Thus, as we discuss the potential of these new technologies, I would call upon each of us in the educational sector to think about what disruption really looks like and how we can improve the experience of our users: the students and professors who want to leverage new technologies inside and outside the classroom. As we do, we could ask the following questions: What does a better student learning experience look like? How can we be inspired by these new technologies to move beyond a traditional education model into something truly disruptive? How does learning change when we flip the classroom, not by putting the lectures and homework in a different order, but by flipping the dynamic between student and instructor? Because as iTunes and Netflix show, the fact that MOOCs are free is not enough to ensure their success.
I’m not convinced the popular MOOCs are disruptive, at least not yet. But I think they could be. If they begin to offer our students a better experience, then students will likely value that experience with enrollment numbers and even with tuition dollars. However, if each person working in education chooses to rise to the MOOC challenge, and if we can be inspired to up our game by these new and free options nipping at our heels, then perhaps we can use technology to create something truly disruptive, in a good way.
Author Perspective: Educator