Thursday, March 20, 2014

Massive Open Online Classrooms (MOOCs) vs. Traditional Colleges

By Sean Scarpiello

Within the past few years, Massive Open Online Classrooms (MOOCs) have become increasingly popular. And as companies such as Udacity and Coursera begin attracting many new students, colleges and other higher education institutions are beginning to worry. Schools like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford have already begun developing their own forms of web-based courses; however, the majority of higher education institutions have not yet developed these technologies in this quickly evolving market of education. As a result, many four year institutions fear that these changes may lower enrollment in upcoming years. Further, educators at these institutions are quickly trying to raise awareness on the importance of a traditional college learning experience.

As I prepare to graduate from a four year liberal arts institution, I cannot help but think back on my experiences. In retrospect, I find that there were many introductory classes where many students simply do not need the stereotypical college class to succeed. In these cases, I believe a well-designed MOOC could easily replace such classes. This is because much of the initial college courses taken by freshmen are for distribution as well as simply building a foundation of knowledge for success in upper level classes. In fact, much of the material being discussed in these classes has been widely known for decades- even centuries- and I doubt that many professors find teaching these intro courses intellectually stimulating. Therefore, a MOOC that is designed to require a lot of the basic class material to be learned and applied on exams would be beneficial to students. Also, a question and answer component to this MOOC, where students can ask professors questions regarding the material, would definitely benefit students.

Looking at more upper level classes, I still find that there are many areas where MOOCs could be used to substitute traditional college lectures, but there are also many subjects that cannot be successfully covered by MOOCs. This is especially true for the STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects where a lot of material is being updated day by day as our understanding of cutting edge science progresses. This, along with many open discussions, debates, and labs in other sorts of classes which allow students to engage each other in a traditional setting, enforce that colleges with a physical campus and classroom cannot be replaced. I have seen this firsthand in classes that discuss biochemistry, biophysics, ethics, philosophy, and political science . Open discussion in many social science courses improve class by adding debates and dialogue into class. My institution even requires students to complete a senior capstone experience where I have personally been able to collaborate with one of my professors on research that is largely unexplored. This type of education is vital and can only be achieved at a traditional college and not in an online format.

In light of all of this information, can an entire college education be provided by MOOCs? Absolutely. But if I was a business owner and a job candidate had an entirely web-based education, I would unquestionably deny them a job. MOOCs are fantastic at getting information from a textbook into a student’s head. MOOCs may even work well at enabling students to apply and incorporate information. However, MOOCs will always take second best to traditional style higher education where learning to work with other people and collaborations take priority. At college, students are always learning whether they are in the classroom or dining hall. Colleges help students learn to collaborate with their peers, work in a lab based setting, develop networking and people skills, learn to analyze and cultivate opinions, to critically think and much more. Therefore, when educators fear that a college education is no longer relevant, they do not need to worry.
Overall, MOOCs are becoming increasing effective at providing students with high quality, personalized educations, but MOOCs will fail to provide the human element of education. Further, only traditional style colleges will be able to improve a students’ ability to collaborate well with others, develop debate and discussion skills, and quickly analyze data as it is presented by others. In this regard, traditional style education is still relevant despite MOOCs improving abilities to provide low cost, individualized education to many students.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The platform you are describing and basing your arguments on, of course, is 100% American, which, however, can be entirely different in other parts of the world. Plus the history of distance-learning students vs. on-campus learners could be looked at, even specifically for American distance-learners. For that record over time I happen to have been following the published results of who turned out to be more successful in the work place after graduation, and the answer is that the distance-learning never-seen-a-campus graduates have continuously been outperforming the ordinary college grads by a wide margin. Actually that is one feature recruiters are looking out for because of that widely known historical fact. This may be due to a number of other reasons though than ability to have the physical presence of one's professor as well as social give-and-take with one's peers. One of them, I know, is motivation, and another one age, or maturity. Well, that may be a subject to keep your eyes open on, and maybe some time in the future to review too.