The End of the University as We Know It — One of Two Visions of a MOOC-filled World

January 4, 2013 at 11:59 am 16 comments

When I talk to people about MOOCs, I realize that people are hearing two radically different stories.

The first group hears that MOOCs can replace lectures, as MOOCs as a kind of textbook. They dream of higher-quality education with blended/flipped classrooms with more interactive exchange during classtime. This group wants to keep Colleges and Universities, and make them better (here’s an example of that vision).  The second group hears the story linked below: that MOOCs will replace classes, then schools.  They expect (and maybe even want) the MOOCopalypse.

What’s fascinating to me is that each group generally dismisses the other’s story.

  • The flipped/blended classroom group expresses shock when I tell them the second story.  “Who would want to do that?  That would ruin universities! Quality would decrease.”
  • The MOOCopalypse group doesn’t understand why you would want to do flipped/blended classrooms.  “But that doesn’t reduce costs!”

I like the first story, and the second one scares me.  Consider the implications of the vision described below (which is a clear second-group story).  With less in-class interaction, graduation rates will plummet — online classes have dramatically lower completion rates without face-to-face contact.  With far fewer schools, there is a much smaller demand for PhD’s, so fewer people will pursue higher degrees.  Our technological innovation and competitiveness will whither.  Think hard about what Universities provide for you before you write them off.

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

via The End of the University as We Know It – Nathan Harden – The American Interest Magazine.

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MOOCs are a fundamental misperception of how teaching works It’s not about the teachers, it’s about the students: In MOOCs or Classroom

16 Comments Add your own

  • [...] Please note that I am not arguing that MOOCs are bad technologies, or that they can’t be used to create wonderful learning environments.  I am explicitly critiquing the use of MOOCs as a replacement for existing courses (with a good teach…. [...]

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  • 2. Errol THompson  |  January 4, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    But some would argue that PhDs can be obtained through MOOCs as well but then would they be PhDs as we know them? I see this happening with Masters level qualifications which seem to be more like graduate diplomas rather than the preparation for research or MPhil that I was used to.

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  • 3. Baker  |  January 4, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    I would argue that Harvard *could* enroll 10 million students (in a MOOC) but they never will, of course. It would devalue the brand. To almost paraphrase Yogi Berra: if 10 million students could get into Harvard, then no one would want to go there.

    If we were alien creatures operating on a hive mind, then yes we’d all be educated the same way through the MOOC mothership from birth. But human nature tells me that people still want to be individuals, and have uniqueness about them. Where and how one learns, be it on the farm, the shop, the streets, the classroom, etc. will continue to be a valued human trait because it says something about you.

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  • 4. BenK  |  January 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Harvard, MIT cannot be replaced by their MOOCs – because much of what they do is outside the classroom, already. Harvard and MIT can’t exist at a population 10M each, because both of them provide important access to physical facilities, thought leaders, driven and motivated peers, and so on, which do not scale. They do more than motivate, they set standards, create cohorts, inspire – and also provide an imprimatur.

    It is also easy to misunderstand the vast differences between the types of PhDs, the realms in which they are recognized, the purposes they serve – and the diversity of professors, as well. If the pull of tenure at Williams or Wellesley is what drives you to a PhD, then you have one image and one set of problems, if the pull of tenure at Caltech or Columbia is the goal, another; large state schools, yet another.

    If someone one of these paths becomes the endgoal for every PhD; then we are on the road to doom anyway, because most of those graduates will be unsuited for and unhappy at the myriad industry jobs, institutes, policy positions and so on. Not every biomedical PhD can run a 50 person laboratory at Harvard Med; it’s just not feasible. Perhaps an argument can be made for further differentiation of the degrees, but that might also just freeze people into career paths prematurely.

    In the end, MOOCs will need to interact diversely with the AP classes in high schools, extension schools, community colleges, liberal arts schools, large universities, elite universities and so on. Some education might currently be so poor that a series of good MOOCs could replace them at huge savings; present autodictats might find themselves surrounded by new glory. Other situations will be better blended. Some (possibly large) subset of professors will find their entire livelihood upended; others will be able to focus on what they love.

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  • 5. rdm  |  January 4, 2013 at 1:34 pm

    I would argue that MOOCs are somewhere between a textbook and a regular class. After all, some interaction is possible — in the context of the faculty, this winds up being significantly more than a typical textbook, and significantly less than a typical class.

    But not all classes are equivalent either, and it’s probably also not true that everyone attending a class actually needs the full benefit of that class.

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  • 6. gflint  |  January 4, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    My question is – who is going to oversee the MOOCs? I look at some of the online courses and see a lot of pure junk. The universities have a pretty good system to insure qualified people are teaching on their campus. I know people with Masters from Lesley College, an online/remote degree issuing college; what a joke. If MOOCs are going to be something like Lesley then education is in big trouble.

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    • 7. rdm  |  January 4, 2013 at 4:36 pm

      My experience is that in many contexts degrees do not matter. For example, when finding a job, demonstrated proficiency is preferred over a degree, and the primary value of a degree is when you cannot demonstrate proficiency in some other way.

      In contexts where a degree is the only option, I do not imagine MOOCs will be relevant any time soon.

      Reply
  • 8. Fred Martin (@fgmart)  |  January 4, 2013 at 5:07 pm

    Mark’s got it right in that people fundamentally don’t understand how teaching and learning works.

    That’s why you get absurd claims like the opener in this article, “Access to college-level education will be free for everyone”, which equates teaching-and-learning quality with a MOOC with what happens in a college classroom.

    (I am assuming a decent classroom like Mark described, where teachers listen to their students and respond thoughtfully.

    Yeah, good MOOC is probably better than a bad teacher, but that does not imply that a good MOOC is anywhere near a good teacher!)

    Thrun started this fallacy with his tweets back in Fall 2011 — “@aiclass: “Amazing we can probably offer a Master’s degree of Stanford quality for FREE. HOW COOL IS THAT?”—September 23, 2011″

    (There’s an aside here that presumes that any MOOC developed at Elite U necessarily exhibits good PCK. I call BS on this.)

    Also, I think the whole study-at-home, at-your-own-pace meme leaves out a fundamental aspect of human psychology.

    As one of my research students put it: “You go to the gym to work out. You go to school to learn.”

    Fred

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    • 9. Jason Eisner  |  January 5, 2013 at 1:10 pm

      “Also, I think the whole study-at-home, at-your-own-pace meme leaves out a fundamental aspect of human psychology.”

      I agree, but there are hybrid models. Say a community college creates a cheap for-credit course that piggybacks on a MOOC. The students must come physically to class and watch the video lectures together with a discussion leader, pausing to discuss individual points and take quizzes. The discussion leader might be an existing instructor at the college, or a caring and knowledgeable practitioner who is hired as an adjunct, or even a pair of peers whose qualification is that they’ve done well in the MOOC in the past.

      Low-cost colleges that adopt this model may be able to offer more advanced material and thereby attract students they couldn’t have served before.

      My elite students are surely doing better with me than they would under the above model. (Particularly in advanced courses that are tracking new developments in the field, where discussion leaders would be harder for the community college to find.)

      But studying with me is unfortunately *much* more expensive. My highly-ranked university is better than the above model, but is it really $50K/year better? Particularly for freshman/sophomore courses where the curriculum is well-established and there are many qualified discussion leaders?

      The community college + MOOC model is not quite as radical as “kill the universities.” It treats a MOOC as analogous to a textbook — albeit The Textbook that Ate the Course (instructor prep time would be greatly reduced, and class quality would go up).

      But it would still be disruptive to the research university. The economics of the research university depend on people willing to pay a small fortune to take smaller classes from active researchers (whose research is subsidized by the tuition, but who may or may not be committed to teaching). It is not obvious that these people are getting their money’s worth, especially in lower-level courses.

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    • 10. Jason Eisner  |  January 5, 2013 at 1:11 pm

      “Also, I think the whole study-at-home, at-your-own-pace meme leaves out a fundamental aspect of human psychology.”

      By the way, MOOCs already address this point to some extent. They are not “at your own pace” like earlier courses that just posted their material online. In a MOOC, a group of students enroll at the same time and go through the course together on a schedule. This helps keep them on track … and ensures that there are plenty of people in the discussion forums who are studying the same thing at the same time.

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  • 11. sk  |  January 6, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    This reminds me of the argument that pilotless planes were not adequate……they work fine for the task needed. MOOCs work fine for the desired outcome. Classrooms work fine for the desired outcome and each type of learning works fine if it is applied correctly. What’s really important is that learning doesn’t have to be in a brick and mortar environment with a teacher. So many teacher, even in Higher Ed have zero experience in the world, they have done nothing but work in academia. That is not to say all teachers fit this model but it’s a large enough number to take note. It would be wise for everyone to realize there are no single, perfect methods!

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  • [...] When I talk to people about MOOCs, I realize that people are hearing two radically different stories. The first group hears that MOOCs can replace lectures, as MOOCs as a kind of textbook. They dre…  [...]

    Reply
  • [...] When I talk to people about MOOCs, I realize that people are hearing two radically different stories. The first group hears that MOOCs can replace lectures, as MOOCs as a kind of textbook. They dre…  [...]

    Reply
  • [...] our courses and programs accessible.  If we choose to offer instruction via MOOCs, particularly as a replacement for face-to-face courses, don’t we have a responsibility to make sure that we are not driving away women and [...]

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  • [...] good posts here and here from Mark Guzdial ( and a lot of good comments too). The big thing for me is that it gets you [...]

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  • [...] that the regents at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign does not think that “the end of the University” is near.  At least, not in the next five to seven [...]

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