One of the themes we academicians constantly preach is the value of lifelong learning. Learning is a virtue, and a life that celebrates it is one worth living. Lasallian institutions like Lewis place particular emphasis on providing quality educational opportunities to all who seek them. We consider access to opportunities for growing knowledge and fostering understanding a basic right all humans must enjoy. As members of the I-think-therefore-I-am species, there is no better way to respect the gift of life than to keep our minds engaged, our curiosities piqued, and our eyes open to what’s new.
Why, then, do so many academicians fear and even actively nay-say MOOCs?
A MOOC – or massive open online course – is precisely what its name implies: an academic offering presented online to a very large audience. Interested students can “enroll” in the course; participate in its lectures synchronously or asynchronously, depending on their schedule; and even do homework and projects just as if the course were offered in a more traditional way. While some MOOCs offer actual academic credit from a traditional brick-and-mortar institution, most offer only a certificate of completion, and some offer only the pride of accomplishment to those who manage to finish. There are several different MOOC platforms available today, and this article does a nice job identifying the major players, including Coursera, EdX, and Udacity. Many high-profile universities have signed agreements with MOOCs to provide learning reinforcements for their students, and many university professors have contributed content, including entire courses, to these MOOC platforms. A number of innovative academicians and their institutions have embraced the idea, although very few know quite where this trend will or should ultimately lead.
The opportunities for net-wise citizens to learn everything from power electronics to C# programming to music composition to the history of ancient Egypt are numerous and exciting. As if I didn’t curse my extreme scarcity of time already, what MOOCs offer make me lament my jam-packed schedule even more. There is so much I want to learn that MOOCs offer. And yet, I can’t, because I have no absolutely no time to commit to a MOOC for the long haul. It’s not a matter of poor prioritization; it’s a matter of not being able to manufacture time.
And that’s precisely why traditional higher education institutions have nothing to fear from MOOCs, provided they figure out how to take advantage of the good things they provide. Most of the people I know are more deficient in free time than they are in money. Life is busy and leaves precious little time for intellectual enrichment. It’s not a matter of setting priorities or having the discipline to stick to a course over the weeks it takes to commit to it. There are simply too many tasks, too many competing pressures, too many people who depend on us, and certain limits we only begrudgingly acknowledge on how much sleep we can skip. And yet, if there is some sort of contractual commitment, some financial tie to complete the course, some academic repercussion for not completing it, the necessity of attending to it helps us budget our time to accommodate the course’s demands. Without those ties, without those consequences, it is generally considered the responsible thing to prioritize those responsibilities that do carry consequences over those that do not. No matter how intriguing, didactic, and world-expanding a MOOC might be, it is rather selfish to work on it when there are so many more pressing things competing for our attention.
What, then, makes an educational endeavor matter for busy people? Simple: the keeper of the “permanent record” – the University – does. While one can argue that there needn’t be an intermediary or gatekeeper separating the uninformed from the knowledge they seek, the fact is that most people have a very difficult time adjusting to life without that gatekeeper. They expect there to be an intermediary, some Ivory Tower purveyor of parchment that will deem their accomplishments worthy. As long as that traditional notion lingers – and I see very little appetite among the public for abandoning it – traditional institutions will continue to have a prominent place in the dissemination of knowledge.
Certainly, MOOCs can and should play a role in catalyzing the spread of knowledge, because nothing I’ve seen can rival the ease with which they convey breadth and depth. The “knowledge goes viral” approach of MOOCs is inspiring and empowering. Yet, there still must be a gatekeeper, someone to certify the MOOC student’s accomplishment. Just as importantly, there still must be some party responsible for organizing all that MOOCs offer. After all, without organization, a MOOC platform becomes a doomed Chinese buffet that places the sushi rolls next to the jello and the fried wontons next to the canned pineapple chunks. It’s an impressive spread, but the overall effect leaves one not quite as hungry and inclined to dine as he should be. Who better to organize and certify the MOOC smorgasbord than the traditional academic institution?
As a professor whose livelihood depends on the continued existence of the Ivory Tower, perhaps I’m just being optimistic that MOOCs are friend, not foe. Honestly, though, I think my optimism is justified. Colleges and universities need to stop fretting about how MOOCs threaten their credit hour production and instead focus on how best to utilize MOOCs to help their students. It’s that focus on the student, after all, that is a traditional institution’s most attractive feature, and it’s an advantage a MOOC just can’t emulate.