There is a lot of speculation surrounding online education and how it will disrupt traditional teaching and learning systems. Many people are looking to other industries to predict what will happen next and in this case it’s the music industry. While some parallels can be drawn between markets, it is important to note the differences between them.
In a blog post titled, “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” Clay Shirky likens MOOCs to MP3s. Mr. Shirky, a writer and professor at NYU who studies the effects of the Internet on society, makes many good points but his basic premise is flawed. He predicts that MOOCs will disrupt the education industry in the same way that MP3s disrupted the music business.
“Higher education is now being disrupted,” he writes, “our MP3 is the massive open online course (or MOOC) and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup.”
Disruption is inevitable and coming. However, Mr. Shirky’s arguments break down in a variety of ways.
The reason that the MP3 caused the chaos that it did is because, to a normal listener, it is a perfect copy of what we used to buy in tangible forms. For most people, there isn’t a noticeable difference between listening to the audio files that are on a CD or even on the radio and the MP3 files that we play from our iPods.
Shirky claims that traditional record labels didn’t think the MP3 would catch on because of its “poor audio quality”. He goes on to imply that the labels were wrong because consumers don’t care about quality. He goes a step further by predicting that the same fundamental collapse will happen with traditional colleges and universities because MOOCs are free and convenient.
But his statements about the disregard for quality don’t hold up because people can’t tell the difference between an MP3 and a WAV – especially now that we are listening to songs via crappy laptop speakers and ear buds. From the point of view of the consumer, we are getting the equivalent of a physical CD for free. So price is an issue, but not quality.
I would argue, however, that there is a very noticeable difference between a college education and learning from a MOOC. One can’t replace the other.
In some cases, it may be true that MOOCs replicate the experience of a large lecture class, which everybody hates anyway, and perhaps those courses deserve to die. But a massive, impersonal online course is not a substitute for an intimate learning experience. The courses that I remember fondly are the ones in which I engaged with others, built relationships, was challenged by the professor and grew outside of my comfort zone.
MOOCs represent one extreme in the educational landscape. A twelve-person class led by a good professor in a solid university sits on the opposite end of the spectrum. Somewhere in between, there is an online learning niche to be filled.
I believe that the market for online classes that are actively led by teachers will be very strong in the coming years. These classes will be interactive, personal, and made up of about thirty students (not tens of thousands). There will be group projects so that students get to know each other and learn to solve problems together. There will be a mentoring component and the instructor will provide lots of personalized feedback. The course will not be free but it will be relatively affordable. It will also require a low time-commitment and be as convenient as possible.
Jeff Borden, who is VP of Instruction & Academic Strategy at Pearson, reports that the majority of the discussions around MOOCs are characterized by fear, not innovation. He noticed an overarching sense of “being left behind” coming from educators. I agree with Mr. Borden, that the second generation of MOOCs needs to be based on better teaching models.
“Unless you are auto-didactic learner (think Abe Lincoln) who can take a piece of content, internalize it, and not only retain it but apply it, MOOCs are likely problematic for you. That likely leads to another problem – 5-8% retention rates… In MOOCs today there is almost zero student choice, no curriculum integration, no sense of brain-learning interjected into the curricula, a lack of modeling or showcasing creativity and/or critical thinking, and the top-down model promotes a sterile, impersonal experience.”
Rather than panic about what effect the Internet will have on our education system, I am more inclined to side with Mr. Borden and focus on creative ways to move forward. The next wave of online schools will be designed “with purpose, solid learning design, and good pedagogical models.” They will help more people learn and provide a substitute for the college experience for a huge market of people who simply can’t affort a traditional college education.
I agree with some of what Mr. Shirky says – but disagree that a MOOC is the equivalent of well structured teacher-led course. A learn-on-your own experience in a MOOC is not the same as an engaging class with an instructor who provides feedback and the interaction with fellow students who work together. I think that is where the argument breaks down. A MOOC might be a fine replacement for a 500-student lecture course, but so might be a book, DVD or YouTube video. I think the future of higher education is in instructor-led online classes that are offered at an affordable price and with a reasonable time commitment.
“Napster, Udacity, and the Academy” by Clay Shirky
“The MOOC heard around the world” by Jeff Borden