As any casual reader of the Quick and the Ed knows, 2012 was the year of the MOOC. Whether it’s individual professors offering free online courses through Udacity, elite colleges signing up with Coursera or EdX to expand their online footprint, or the many efforts underway to determine how to attach formal academic credit to these innovations, 2012 will be remembered as the year that the traditional academy got over its phobia of online education.
But it is also important to acknowledge that these initial innovations are not a panacea, and that online higher education 10 years from now (or even two), may have leapt past MOOCs and could look very different from what we conceive of today. That’s why as the year closes, it was refreshing to see two pieces in the Chronicle of Higher Education whose authors have not drunk the MOOC Kool-Aid. One piece was insightful and thoughtful, and suggested how colleges and universities could use online instruction to improve learning and the student experience. The other, unfortunately, repeated the same bromides we have become too accustomed to hearing about how online higher education is risky, not well suited to underperforming students, and that what really ails higher education is too little money and too many students who are not prepared to succeed once they reach college.
“Jump off the Coursera Bandwagon,” by GW business school dean Doug Guthrie, points out that the model behind MOOCs is scale: getting as many students as possible from around the globe to take an online course from a world-renowned professor or university. But Guthrie suggests that for online courses to really take hold in institutions such as his, technology must not address scale but customization. Technology needs to be deployed to target instruction for the distinct needs of individual students. Even if you don’t agree with Guthrie, his article reveals that both he and his university have a distinct plan for how to use online courses and instruction to help improve the quality of the programs it offers to students. Far from resisting the advance of online education, he is planning for how best to use it.
But if resistance is what you’re looking for, I refer you to “For Whom is College Being Reinvented.” While the article makes some good points about urging caution before embracing MOOCs fully, its central premise is wrong: that online education, MOOCs or otherwise, will serve only to reinforce our dual system of higher education today. One where elite universities attract the best students and most dollars, but also where most students attend cash-strapped colleges that struggle to educate them, in large part because students were poorly prepared in a woeful K-12 system. The article’s authors diagnose the dual system properly for the most part, but their insistence that online education will reinforce this divide is wrong. In particular, the article perpetuates the myth that poorly-prepared students are not a good fit for online instruction.
True, it’s hard to imagine MOOCs being a solution for these students, but one need look no further than experiments such as Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative or the National Center for Academic Transformation’s work with community colleges to redesign remedial courses to learn that technology properly deployed can improve student learning (and save money for already cash-starved colleges). Yes, woeful preparation in K-12 schools is a huge problem, but the response of throwing up one’s hands is all too familiar for those who follow traditional higher education. Dean Guthrie’s response should serve as a model: How can we use innovations in online learning to better serve the distinct needs of individual students? And moreover, how can technology help to close the gaps that exist in both higher education and K-12? Now that’s a good New Year’s resolution for online education in 2013.
*Dawson is employed by Laureate Education, an online education provider.
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