Relax – Higher education won't be killed by MOOCs

In a recent University World News commentary titled, “Yes, MOOC is the global higher education game changer”, Professor Simon Marginson from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne argues that MOOCs will spell the death of higher education as we know it.

That may be an exciting thing to say – but there are some fundamental barriers involved that will be pretty challenging to overcome.

As someone who has worked in online education for a long time, I can assure any and all that not every student prefers to learn online, even if from a course that carries the imprimatur of a well-regarded university.

There's nothing wrong with online learning. Indeed, research has shown pretty conclusively that there's no significant difference in learning outcomes between learning on campus and learning online.

But just because two things are adequate substitutes for each other doesn't mean that all people will prefer the two equally. Especially when students have been raised to see higher education as a classroom-based activity with a tweed-clad professor at a lectern, they're likely to retain that as a preference even in the wake of a mountain of evidence that it is not strictly necessary.

Wide acceptance of online learning

The good news is that unreasonable objections to online learning have largely become muted in the wake of repeated studies showing that distance learning is no less effective than classroom-based instruction.

But while prejudice against distance learning has lost the day, this does not mean that there aren't many students whose needs are better accommodated by a course that takes place on campus.

For example, many institutions focus on asynchronous learning when it comes to their distance learning offerings. That means that courses are designed for convenience so that students can participate whenever it's convenient for them rather than at a set time.

The trade-off for that convenience is live interaction, the sort that's part and parcel of a course in a classroom. It's possible to duplicate live sessions online, and more and more institutions are moving in that direction, but at present those students who are inclined towards real-time interaction with their faculty members and peers are likely still to have reason to prefer the classroom.

Moreover, it's not only the ‘online’ aspect of MOOCs that can be offputting – the ‘massive’ one can be as well. In a course with tens of thousands of students, it's hardly realistic to expect personal attention from the rock star professor whose name is on the marquee.

That's not to say the sort of peer-to-peer learning that MOOCs by necessity employ is pedagogically unsound; far from it. But it's not a mode of learning that's universally appealing, and a prestigious university name can only go so far to paper over the objections from a student who would like the option of directly communicating with his or her instructor.

The academic credit barrier

Another fundamental barrier is that MOOCs from prestigious universities do not lead to academic credit, and this is an important drawback to them that their cheerleaders need to consider a little more closely. Moreover, if I may be allowed a prediction, they never will lead to credit, especially from top universities.

As much as educators may not wish to admit it, from an economic perspective education is not actually a university's true product: a prestigious credential is.

When employers start accepting MOOC certificates of completion as the equivalent to a university degree, then one will be able to consider them a substitute. Until then, however, one simply cannot. It's true that there's a movement toward educational badges (see below), but it's in its infancy, and if they do take off in the marketplace for labour, it won't be tomorrow.

As evidence, for several decades now in the computing world there has been a system of what those in the education world are calling 'educational badges'. There is a large ecology of certifications that technology workers can earn that demonstrate their proficiency with various information technologies.

Many of these certification programmes are administered from companies like Microsoft or Cisco, and are specific to the products of those companies. Other programmes are from ‘vendor neutral’ non-profit organisations like CompTIA and concern themselves with a broader category of technologies.

Those who are watching MOOCs closely may be interested in the relationship that has developed between the world of ICT certifications and that of higher education.

In the 1990s there was something of a competitive aspect between them, where technology workers might consider an advanced level Microsoft certification just as useful to them in the labour market as a degree in information systems.

Before long, however, the higher education system prevailed, not because workers or employers lost interest in certifications, but because higher education adapted to allow for ways to include them in its own system.

Higher education adapts

The adaptation was that it became possible to earn advanced standing at certain universities for those who held certain certifications. In some cases, universities would recognise these certifications as the equivalent to transfer credit, accepting them as though the transferring student had simply taken academic coursework elsewhere.

In other cases, and this is the example more likely to apply to MOOCs, those certifications fit into those universities' established systems of prior learning assessment, wherein students who learn university-level material outside of the institution can put together a portfolio of evidence that, if approved, leads to advanced standing.

It is this process, prior learning assessment, that would seem to be the best way for successful MOOC-takers to move forward if they wish for broad recognition of their learning, and the best way for universities to fit MOOCs into their established system of credit.

I hope I don't sound dismissive of MOOCs, as that's not my intention. MOOCs are a wonderful new tool in the toolbox of adult education. I'm pleased that universities are offering them. In fact I'm doing one myself later this year.

But as exciting as they are, they cannot be all things to all people, and local universities are in no danger whatsoever of being supplanted by them, at least not any time soon.

It would be a shame if this false expectation overshadowed the real opportunities that MOOCs can and do provide, and caused unwarranted disappointment when the initial enthusiasm for MOOCs dies away and it becomes clear that they are not an educational panacea.

* Stephen H Foerster is a writer, technologist and educator based in the US and the Commonwealth of Dominica.