The Future of Universities: Everything a MOOC is NOT
I’ve been puzzling about what Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) do an do not mean for the future of universities, and I think I finally have an insight:
Amy’s Conjecture: The future of universities is in excelling at everything a MOOC is not.
The trend over the last dozen or so years is for people who make money creating intellectual property to be compensated more and more poorly. Fewer people are making a living as musicians. Professional journalism is in crisis. Small newspapers are closing, and major ones are struggling. This hasn’t happened all at once, but like a frog in a pot, raising the temperature/economic pressure a fraction of a degree per year over the long haul has dramatic consequences. MOOCs turn education into a form of IP. The same economic pressures are going to apply.
If you buy that, then what’s next for universities? There will no doubt be MOOC winners–but I suspect that just as Amazon.com seems to be dominating the e-commerce business, there will be advantages to size that will be hard to fight. Margins will be tight, with a small number of big winners.
The future of universities, then, is in everything a MOOC can not do. What is that?
Amy’s Lemma: There are some things that will never be learned as well online.
I believe that there will always be something special in an on-campus experience. Young adults need a liminal period, between dependence and independence, to grow into full maturity. And there are educational benefits to a face-to-face experience that will be hard to capture online. Like project-based learning, undergraduate research, entrepreneurship, oral presentation, writing and teamwork skills. I’m sure you will be able to learn all those things online to some degree–but the in-person experience will always be better.
The challenge for universities then is: are we giving students the very best in their on-campus experience? Are there compelling reasons for students to invest their time and money in an embodied educational experience?
The further challenge for us as a society is: Will we continue to make some degree of face-to-face higher educational experience affordable for students from diverse economic backgrounds? That’s not a forgone conclusion–it’s a political choice, and an important one.
So here’s my call to action for university administrators: If you are concerned about change in the world of higher ed, have you thought hard about the unique value of an on-campus experience? Instead of investing in a new MOOC, how about beefing up programs in undergraduate research and entrepreneurship? Are we doing sound evaluation of the many experiences students are having on campus, and making them better every year? Why don’t we form new high-priority committees and redirect resources to seriously address those challenges?