Why MOOCs are like Farmville

min read

Another day, another report from one of the thought leaders on higher education. This time it is from Moody’s, which proclaims the death of the traditional model of higher education. While the concerns raised by Moody’s are real – diminished resources due to state budget cuts, declining family incomes, and less willingness by students to take on debt – we should hesitate before leaping to the conclusion that these challenges necessitate a radical change, through massive adoption of online learning technologies such as MOOCs. Count me among the skeptical – I’m not yet convinced that MOOCs are going to lead students to jettison a traditional higher education experience anytime soon.

Over the past few weeks, for every piece of commentary extolling the virtue of MOOCs, I have found another that calls into question whether this particular type of online learning is sustainable over the long term. For one, no one has yet come up with a sustainable financial model for free massive open online courses (which, at most schools, are financed by traditional, tuition paying students – a practice I object to). As the University of California has found out, if you build it, students don’t necessarily come once you start charging them for the experience. Other issues with MOOCs include a lack of opportunity for the development of social capital and teamwork skills, less emphasis on exceptional achievement and individual distinction by students, and the supplanting of the concept of higher learning with job training.
As MOOCs have now reached the peak of inflated expectations, I expect that skepticism of their potential will become more widespread and accepted. When I think about MOOCs, I think about other new innovations, like Farmville, that failed to live up to their early hype and were doomed by poor quality and a lack of financial support, as they descended into the trough of disillusionment. Once that happens, the true innovation becomes separated from the hype, and what many times remains is very different and potentially far more impactful and lasting than what was initially expected – what Gartner refers to as the slope of enlightenment.
The current hype surrounding MOOCs is focused on the potential for increased access and lower costs associated with vertical scalability – but this assumes a traditional one-to-many model of learning with the teacher (or content creator) playing a gatekeeping role. This is not altogether different from the traditional classroom lecture, only with technology supplanting the physical classroom as the mediator between teachers and students. This is not revolutionary or even an evolutionary change, but something that more closely resembles what sociologist George Ritzer identified as The McDonaldization of Society some twenty years ago.
McDonaldization does not represent the true potential for change made possible by the widespread availability of the Internet and massive adoption of computers and mobile devices. What truly has changed is the nature of collaboration itself, which is best understood as the shift from relationships based on one-to-many exchanges to relationships based on many-to-many exchanges. In the world of many-to-many relationships, the role played by traditional gatekeepers – whether we are talking about record companies, book publishers, newspapers, or teachers – diminishes and is supplanted by a world where every individual is simultaneously enabled to become both a content creator and subscriber at the same time, with social networking tools like Facebook and Twitter enabling collaboration on a massive scale.
Within the context of many-to-many relationships, the potential of MOOCs and their potential for lasting impact on higher education becomes something altogether different than what many now expect. My predictions:
  1. De-emphasis of the traditional classroom lecture. Regardless of whether teaching occurs in a physical classroom or is delivered on the Web, higher education will shift from a model predicated on the teacher as content creator and the student as content subscriber, to a model focused on collaboration where both teachers and students are creators and subscribers simultaneously. In this new world, learning becomes less about the dissemination of knowledge and more about the process by which knowledge and innovation are created.
  2. Teachers will no longer be the authoritative center of the learning process. Social networking theorists like Valdis Krebbs emphasize that in a world of many-to-many relationships, power is shared equally among all participants – and the authority of traditional gatekeepers is greatly diminished. In this new world, teachers will become stewards and facilitators of learning, as one among equals engaged in many-to-many collaborations.
  3. Our notion of rigor and achievement will no longer depend on the credit hour. If there is anything anchoring the current model of higher education, it is the concept of the credit hour. How do we know a course of study was rigorous? Because students met for three hours a week, completed three hours of homework between meetings, repeated this cycle 15 times, and received a positive evaluation from their instructor. In a world of many-to-many relationships, a peer review and evaluation model will develop that will prove to be every bit as rigorous as anything that exists today. Individual achievement and distinction will be based upon an individual’s reputation as determined by the social network in which they are engaged. The late Randy Pausch outlined one such model in The Last Lecture (starting at 51:10 in the video).
If MOOCs can help us accomplish these three things, they will surpass their hype and their impact on higher education will be far more lasting. But doing so will only solve one of our challenges – which is how technology can be harnessed to deepen learning. These innovations don’t, by themselves, solve our other problem – which is affordability. I’m convinced that we can tackle this problem, not by adopting the principles identified by George Ritzer, but by rolling up our sleeves and thinking and acting quite a bit differently. That is going to require administrators like myself to do things that we would rather avoid - taking cost out of the system - by setting priorities, separating the must haves from the wants and nice to haves, and creating a culture where we advance our careers not by building new things and consuming more resources, but by being very good stewards of what we have. If we can figure how to do all of those things – we will truly change higher education for the better.