According to various reports, universities are beginning to take serious notice of MOOCs – massive open online courses. See, for example, the New York Times article “The Year of the MOOC” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/education/edlife/massive-open-online-courses-are-multiplying-at-a-rapid-pace.html
Nearly every university administrator and many professors that I talk to realize there is a potential sea change occurring in higher education. There is, of course, tremendous uncertainty as to where this is all leading – and a hope that, wherever it leads, these folks will retire before they have to go there.
One possible analogy to the problem facing higher education is to compare it to the challenge faced by theater in the 19th century. During that period, every city of any consequence had one or more theaters that were the venue for actors, singers and other live performers.
Then along came recorded music and the movies and ultimately television. Those technological innovations made it possible to deliver performances from the best actors and singers without requiring them to be physically present in each city. In addition, the revenue that this form of recorded entertainment could generate was much greater than that of any local live theater. Movie and record companies used that extra revenue to provide “production values” and elaborate staging that isn’t possible in the local live theater.
The result: most of those live stage theaters disappeared or were converted into movie theaters. Now, technology makes it possible to deliver on a large scale at least that part of a college education that consists of watching a professor deliver lectures in front of a classroom. Again, it is unlikely that the local university or college will be able to match this global delivery or the “production values” that could enhance these online courses.
Of course, we still have Broadway (plus a few successful regional theaters). So too there will be Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and the like. But most colleges may find it increasingly difficult to justify their continued existence using the current approach.
One significant barrier that has been holding back this transformation is that colleges have had the combined responsibility of both delivering an education to their students and certifying that their students mastered that education (i.e., they provide college degrees). If that connection starts to break and there can be an independent respected institution that would certify whether someone has mastered a topic, we will see lots more experimentation and rapid change in higher education.
Thus it is interesting that in today’s New York Times there appeared an article “Free Online Courses to Be Evaluated for Possible College Credit” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/14/education/moocs-to-be-evaluated-for-possible-college-credit.html The report notes that the the American Council on Education (higher education association) and Coursera (a MOOC consortium of thirty three universities, including Stanford and Princeton) will be evaluating whether to offer college credits for MOOC courses. Another MOOC consortium, EdX, already provides a certificate of completion.
The change is starting to accelerate.
© 2012 Norman Jacknis