MOOCs will never replace traditional higher ed

MOOCs are great for supplementing learning but not replacing it.

Trent M. Kays

There seems to be a trend developing in higher education, and that trend is in favor of Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs are courses that are often open to the public and are housed within a site on the Internet.

The concept of a MOOC predates the digital age. The intellectual underpinnings of MOOCs date to around the 1960s, when early Internet pioneers discussed massive collaboration via a network of connected computers.

The idea of MOOCs is not new. It is a storied idea enveloped in a deep and rich history. However, this doesn’t mean MOOCs are necessarily conducive to progressive education. Some seem to argue that MOOCs will replace traditional higher education because MOOCs are cheaper to run and can educate more people at once. As with most things in the academy lately, economics rules the conversation. But MOOCs are not generally cheaper as they require a substantial and supported network, MOOC-literate instructors and students willing to relegate their learning to just a computer screen.

There certainly are positive attributes to MOOCs. They can encourage peer-to-peer learning, collaboration across regions and the ability to easily dive into an exciting and new subject. Conversely, they don’t always encourage fruitful or constructive criticism, they include little interaction — if any — with the course leader or teacher and there are huge digital literacy disparities. These attributes often seem tied to the type of MOOC with which one is engaging: xMOOC or cMOOC. The former is a broadcast MOOC and is typically associated with the negative attributes of MOOCs. The latter is a connectivist MOOC and is usually associated with the positive attributes.

Despite these distinctions, all MOOCs have something in common: privilege. Meaning, one must have access to a stable Internet connection, a sturdy computer, time to engage with the material and basic digital-literacy skills to participate. Not everyone has these things and most who do come from a place of advantage. Much like higher education, not everyone can participate, but unlike higher education, MOOCs are always advertised as an open education model.

Like higher education, MOOCs aren’t for everyone. Yet, more than that, MOOCs signify something from which higher education should be moving away.

Learning and content management systems are ubiquitous in higher education. We interact with them everywhere. The University of Minnesota uses Moodle and formerly used WebCT. Other universities around the country use Blackboard, ANGEL, Desire2Learn and others to aid face-to-face and online coursework. There is one thing all these systems have in common — most users don’t like them. These systems are often cumbersome and require a level of technological understanding beyond most professors and students.

These systems are something we should be attempting to reinvent and form into learning spaces that are actually conducive to learning. For all the publicity, MOOCs often become nothing more than a glorified content and learning management system. Knowledge is deposited inside the MOOC, and the students or participants drink from the fountain of knowledge.

It could be argued cMOOCs are different in that participants bring the knowledge, but said knowledge is still deposited and monitored within a structure of which participants often do not have control. The difference may seem minute when wagered against xMOOCs, where participants don’t contribute to the knowledge system. Yet, the act of depositing and withdrawing knowledge is similar. 

It’s not that I consider MOOCs to generally be a bad idea; it’s just that I think we should be more critical of them. Many are rushing into MOOCs without considering the class, societal and cultural issues inherent in their adoption. Navigating a MOOC requires knowledge that is not always available to participants. One must know how to interact in online environments in order to benefit the most; however, we often see cases of trolling, flaming and other similar behaviors on the Internet. This behavior can extend to MOOCs. Even in closed online courses, the instructor has to police or set ground rules for interactions.

This form of sociality, one based on lack of body language and other social cues, is what drives online interaction. Despite my trepidations regarding MOOCs, they can be wonderful tools for accessing knowledge. However, we shouldn’t define them as something they are not. We need to understand the limitations as well as the potential for greatness.

MOOCs will never replace traditional higher education. It can’t replicate the experience, and there are many who still abhor online learning due to its impersonal nature. But, perhaps MOOCs can supplement learning and be a place where students collect knowledge that others on the Internet can openly access.

I understand the economics of education and the reality of it. Still, we cannot acquiesce to the MOOC-mania. There’s too much at stake in higher education, and there’s too much that MOOCs just can’t replace.