Active Learning Blog

Faculty Are the Key to Real Disruption in Higher Education

Oct 20, 2015 8:39:36 AM by Fred Singer

I remember in 2012, the New York Times declaring in an article that it was officially the “Year of the MOOC.”  Was it possible that I was really living through the same revolution that I experienced in 1997 while I was working at America Online—the “Year of the Internet”?

Supposedly, the long awaited “disruption” in education had arrived overnight. The hypothesis was that MOOCs would usher in a next generation of learning where students around the world would be able to attend courses taught by the greatest professors in the world.  They could get an Ivy League education in their pajamas.  MOOCs would democratize education and solve the problem of rising tuition and increasing student debt by providing access to courses for free.

As we fast forward to 2015, the legacy of MOOCs has turned out to be something quite different than what was imagined in the New York Times article three years ago.  Higher education has not been disrupted by MOOCs, but they did usher in a new age of acceptance of both the role of educational technology in learning and the role of online studies.  It has also driven increased acceptance of the need for intelligently rethinking education technology in the classrooms where the majority of students are really being educated.   This is where the revolution has to start.

In any event, one particular analysis of the MOOC phenomenon that everyone should read was recently published in an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed by the Stanford educational leadership team.  I had a chance to discuss the topic with them recently and they are, in my opinion, some of the most thoughtful leaders on the role of education and technology.  In the article, What We’ve Learned from MOOCs, they outline a number of important points about what we have learned from the MOOC phenomenon that are worth understanding.

First, we have to consider student intent. Many students that first signed up for MOOCs were doing so because of a personal or professional goal—they were not taking a MOOC as a means toward graduation. We need to acknowledge that MOOCs are a new type of instructional genre—rather than a replacement for academic institutions.

Second, MOOCs have not solved the issue of access and educational inequality. Initials studies have shown that most MOOC users are actually college-educated.  

Thirdly, the online-only format of MOOCs does not really provide an effective learning experience today.  MOOCs cannot replicate the energy of a teacher, one who is passionate about his subject. Even with online chat, it’s very difficult to clone the social experience of attending class, interacting with and engaging in discussion and conversation.  In other words, faculty and their interactions with students really matter!

There is much to learn from MOOCs. The authors point out that because MOOCs are free or low-cost, they enhance the overall higher education landscape. MOOCs have contributed to our understanding of how online education can support the in-classroom experience and the science of learning itself.

Over the past three years, the hype surrounding MOOCs has dominated and drowned out the more important conversation about a digital revolution that is occurring within the classroom. If we are to truly revolutionize education, we must start with where the bulk of the students are actually being educated.  There are over 150 million tuition paying higher education students worldwide.

As I reflect upon the MOOC phenomenon, the most important point to draw is that faculty and their interactions are truly critical to improving outcomes.   MOOCs failed in their promise because completion rates were close to 10%.   No head of an academic institution can survive with completion rates at those levels.

As we look back at the year of the MOOC in 2012, I think we will see that while it never lived up to expectations, that it may have marked an important turning point in defining the appropriate power balance between technology and the faculty.