Massive open online courses, more commonly known as MOOCs, are all the rage in higher education. Respected institutions from MIT to Stanford are jumping on the bandwagon, offering MOOCs to thousands of people across the world. But why? I have a theory.
Just a couple of years ago, higher education was under a firestorm of criticism for the high cost and perceived low return of a college degree. Congressmen and governors across the nation were screaming about the rising cost of a four-year degree and looking into how the nation's youth were actually benefiting from this costly endeavor. I could argue that this outcry was a diversion from budgetary problems in government, but I digress.
So what's the best way for higher educators to divert the firestorm of controversy away from them? Find a way to "give back" to society in a big way! MOOCs showcase an institution and its best faculty while giving the masses the opportunity to 'virtually attend" that institution for free, with a minimal amount of university investment. It's exciting and innovative!
If my little conspiracy theory is true, the scheme is brilliant. The subject of the rising cost of higher education has been reduced to a whisper, while positive press about MOOCs is everywhere. Thousands of people are "enrolling" in these courses," taking everything from English literature to circuits and electronics, and online platform providers such as Coursera and Udacity are attracting millions of dollars in venture capital.
Is This All Bad?
So aside from my little theory about societal manipulation, are MOOCs all bad? Absolutely not. I subscribe to the notion that all educational media are positive for society. Thousands of people, young and old, are getting an intellectual benefit from these online courses, and it's a phenomenal service to society. We all need a bit more intellectual stimulation to spark our creativity and motivation to make positive world changes.
On the provider side, any time that colleges and universities can share the knowledge, research and wisdom of some of the best minds, we're all better for it. It's the classic win-win for faculty and students, and it is great PR for institutions of higher learning.
But (you knew a "but" was coming), MOOCs will not bring down higher education as we know it. They will not replace brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. Will I be telling my children in a few years to get on their computers and get to work on their bachelor's degrees? For those who really want a full and rich education, my answer is a definitive NO.
Traditional higher education is more than going to class, listening to a professor, doing homework and taking tests. It's about building learning relationships with faculty and other students. It's sometimes about learning to live independently, without a parent to protect and guide the individual every step of the way. Traditional higher education is about taking required courses that you may never have taken otherwise and discovering things about yourself and the world in life-changing ways.
A statement made by Susan Holmes, a statistics professor at Stanford, hits a nerve. "I don't think you can get a Stanford education online, just as I don't think that Facebook gives you a social life."
Higher education involves much more than the knowledge you learn in class. It's about the development of the whole person: emotionally, socially, intellectually and academically. The exchange, textual discussion and regurgitation of knowledge simply demonstrate that you generally know a subject. The full college experience prepares students to communicate, collaborate, contemplate and, sometimes, negotiate topics on many different levels, both in writing and orally. (Obviously, my traditional education has also prepared me to group words together that end in "a-t-e.")