The MOOC Threat?

collegeFor the past couple of years, many in academia have worried openly about what Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, will mean to the future of higher education. The principle worry has been that the appeal of taking coursework whenever and wherever they want will be too much for students to resist, and they will stop enrolling in and coming to traditional brick-and-mortar universities, leaving our lecture halls empty. Many universities, particularly smaller private ones, will close their doors, unable to sustain themselves on what will end up being greatly reduced tuition income.

Of course, higher education has experienced challenges before. The precursor to the MOOC, the blended or hybrid course, which sought to supplement or replace some traditional classroom learning with instruction delivered online, was expected to drain university technology budgets, dilute standards, tax teaching staff, reduce the number of tenure-track positions by replacing them with adjunct instructors, and start everyone down that slippery slope to replacing PhD-level faculty altogether. While some of those trends have occurred, particularly the replacement of tenured positions with non-tenure-track positions and adjuncts, they are more the results of general belt-tightening and administrative shortsightedness than of adopting blended coursework.

Consider, too, the threat of the for-profit university. Phoenix, Argosy, American Intercontinental, and Devry were expected to clobber private universities on cost, offerings, and student services by improving the Academy through the wisdom and efficiency of corporate America. After many scandals involving tuition gouging and unfulfilled promises, the inevitable lapses in quality that occur when one places profit over pedagogy, the promise and the threat of the for-profit university have not been fulfilled.

Is the rise of the MOOC a legitimate cause for alarm or simply another test the academy will pass in time? The answer to that question will probably come sooner given news that Georgia Tech, one of the world’s premier engineering and science schools, will be offering an online master’s degree in Computer Science at a greatly reduced tuition rate. For about a quarter of what it costs to attend Georgia Tech in Atlanta, students can earn a master’s degree in Computer Science by taking courses completely online. In fact, you have to pay for the coursework only if you want a grade and a diploma. Otherwise, you can take the courses online merely for the purest of educational motives, self-enrichment.

How in the world are traditional brick-and-mortar institutions, particularly small- to mid-sized ones like Lewis, compete with world renowned prestige producers like GT offering celebrated coursework at ridiculously less expensive rates? We should probably just cut our losses and close our doors now, because this is one fight we will not win. Tree-hugging liberal profs like me would prefer not to waste natural resources that could be better used in fashioning our collective coffin.

Just kidding.

On the contrary, at the risk of sounding like a cliché-addled assessment guru, the MOOC model is not a threat; it is an opportunity. It may be a call for us in traditional higher education to adapt what we are doing, but it is merely a prodding to adjust to the expectations of the modern student. It is not a march at gunpoint to become something completely different from who we are.

Salman Khan is the founder of the wildly popular Khan Academy, a free, large-scale web education site that has thousands of tutorials on hundreds of academic subjects. Khan is a former hedge fund analyst who was living the good life of a successful Harvard-educated financial trader when his twelve-year-old niece asked him for help on her homework. She was having a very difficult time with the assignment, which dealt with converting measurement units. It struck Khan as odd that this very bright girl was having trouble with something that seemed trivial to him. He could see her frustration and fear build as she struggled with the concepts. It dawned on him that the frustration of such struggles and the high risk that they will end up futile because of the lack of available academic supports are prime reasons why people stop trying to understand complicated but important topics and, instead, simply give up. Determined to find a better way, he created a series of online tutorials on unit conversion, and expanded from there to cover a whole host of other math topics. He stretched into Computer Science (you can view his excellent resources on Computer Science here), physics, the life sciences, business; you name it, Khan Academy either has a resource on it or is working to develop related coursework. Amazingly, it’s all completely free to use. Its promise, “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”, puts any mission statement you’ve ever read to shame.

Given this success, it is somewhat surprising to read Khan’s argument that the MOOC is more an opportunity for traditional higher education than a threat. In his excellent editorial in the January 2013 edition of the Communications of the ACM, he performed the Academy’s tough tasks for it. He identified the unique traits of traditional brick-and-mortar institutions and described in somewhat romantic terms how they could push these to the fore of who they are and what they offer. Rather than try to compete with the MOOC model in the classroom, use MOOC resources as tools and supplements, combining them with the features of campus that traditionally have made college college.

Khan’s vision resonates very well with me. We’ve been pursuing it in Computer Science for a while now, though not with as much aplomb or whole-hearted abandon. We have traditional in-class lectures, but most of us record them so that students who can’t be there or whose attention breaks during class can catch up later. We integrate online resources into our class sessions and homework, recognizing long ago that it is disingenuous of us to claim a monopoly over a field that changes so quickly. We make a lot of use of course management systems like Blackboard and Moodle, not only as a repository for course content, but as a set of tools to extend learning, including discussion boards and surveys and online quizzes. We’ve tried using flipped classrooms, albeit with mixed success. As technology experts, we haven’t shied away from embracing technology to enhance learning.

Despite all this use of educational technology, however, almost all students attend our classes all the time. I started recording lectures using Camtasia five years ago. I had nearly 100% attendance then, and I still have that today. Students want to attend class. They want to be there.

Why? Honestly, I’m not qualified at all to answer that question. A team of sociologists and psychologists certainly could, and probably should. However, I know what we offer in the classroom. We offer the opportunity for students to feel a sense of belonging and camaraderie. This sense stems from their feeling that their views are respected, that their questions are encouraged, that their contributions are valued, and that their future successes are our shared successes. No matter how good we Computer Scientists get at refining human-machine interfaces to break down the barriers between human and computer, we’re never going to be able to convey those intangible human feelings in data packets. I am confident there are limits to computer-assisted communication, just as there are limits to the precision with which we can represent floating-point numbers. You can’t convey belonging in binary.

Beyond the emotional component, we offer students the benefits of a network. We have an Advisory Board that guides our curriculum, funds our labs, and connects us with employment opportunities. We have loyal alumni who provide internship and project opportunities. We have guest speakers and student clubs and group projects and independent studies. We have interdisciplinary research opportunities and workshops. In annoying business-speak, we call these “value-adds”. They are features those sitting in their underwear studying a screen won’t get. We, as a physical, non-virtual entity, do offer these things just by virtue of who we are.

Traditional institutions will improve what they offer by embracing MOOCs as a way to enhance how they deliver content. That will free us to spend more time and money on those additional features that make college the nest of intellectual wing-spreading it is supposed to be.


About Ray Klump

Associate Dean, College of Aviation, Science, and Technology at Lewis University Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University,, You can find him on Google+.

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