Every few months, the established university and college system publishes a scientific-sounding study that inevitably finds that the online learning movement of the last three years has pretty much been a failure. This month, Teachers’ College at Columbia University published one based on interviews with 83 “faculty members, administrators, researchers, and other actors in the MOOCspace”.
What these studies aim to disprove is generally always the same: that MOOCs will eventually make traditional colleges obsolete, and MOOCs main purpose is to open access to higher education to poor and uneducated students without access to a prestigious college education. Of course, the results are always that colleges are continuing just fine, and that the majority of MOOC students are not poor or uneducated. Insert shock here.
So the whole basis of these studies are flawed from the start. I personally don’t believe that colleges and universities will disappear in 10, 20 or even 50 years. Is anyone saying that? We as a society will always need a place where students between 18 and 24 can go and do dedicated learning before entering the workforce full time. But I do believe those institutions will change the way they teach in-person students based on the new teaching styles and technology required for online and distance learning. We’re already seeing changes, and the study does mention they are seeing changes to teaching styles as well. It may not currently be cheaper to deliver one MOOC course online than to stand in front of one class and deliver that same material, but once that lesson is recorded, it can be reused while an in-person lecture needs to be delivered anew every class.
As for the other point, there are many, many people in this world who have no desire to take a class in the traditional college topics (math, science, art, history, philosophy, etc.). This probably is 90% of the population of the world across all countries and economic classes. Does Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffet, or any other American billionaire take online courses? No more or less likely than a poor person living in a favela in Brazil. The fact that a lot of the students in online courses already have a college degree is no surprise – these people have already shown a desire for more learning beyond the mandatory amount. Most MOOCs are “just” free classes, voluntarily taken, with nothing more than a certificate of completion for finishing. The fact they attract people who have already have shown the desire for learning more than the minimum required by law should not be shocking.
But that doesn’t mean the Harvard and MIT courses at edX are not opening up that prestigious education to more students. Even though I have an University degree, would I ever in my life have the chance to be taught Finance by a Nobel-prize winning professor? Not without Yale opening that course up. Would I be taking a Marketing class from the Wharton School? Not without Wharton making that class available online. Online courses have made formerly rare and expensive education available to hundreds of thousands of people around the world, even if they already have a college or university degree.
The study even makes the claim that online courses are actually increasing the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” when it comes to education. It’s hard to imagine how a free online class reduces the access to education when compared to a $40,000 per year institution that hoards it’s knowledge and training like a gold pirate protecting his treasure.
Of course, the study tries to throw some additional mud on MOOCs by suggesting some prestigious college brands are cheapened with free, online classes, and the cost of producing a class can run into the $300,000 range, and that money is stolen from other college programs. There’s no evidence, of course, to suggest that people are less likely to go to Harvard because of the free Harvard courses available online or that Harvard tuition costs are being lowered as a result. They are both completely bogus, unsubstantiated claims.
One would think that Columbia’s study would cite facts and figures, showing that the hundreds of thousands of students who have taken classes online have not actually learned anything, or that the schools have gained no important knowledge in experimenting with these types of distance learning classes. Perhaps there is no way to quantify that with numbers as those things are not easily measured in a study like this. But that didn’t stop the authors from speculating on the declining value of the college brand though.
I suspect these types of defensive, conflicting interest studies will continue to be done. I await the day when the authors realize online and offline learning can peacefully co-exist, and that online benefits offline learning tremendously, as offline also benefits online.
Agree? Disagree? I want to hear from you in the comments.