Wednesday, October 30, 2013

MOOCs are about students

MOOCs are sometimes covered in unlikely places, such as the Scholarly Kitchen, the blog of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

A recent post, MOOCs and the cycle of hype, was refreshing because of the candor of the author, but once again it was about how traditional higher education can make sense of MOOCs. I made a couple of comments under the post, the second one fueled by a response to my first comment, and I thought I would put them together here:

I think MOOCs in computer science, statistics, and other quantitative disciplines present amazing opportunities for learning. I completed a rigorous 12-week edX MOOC in biostatistics early this year and it was better than pretty much any course I took at a Big Ten university as a graduate student of engineering.

I suppose I like to learn online. If MOOC providers figure out how to improve their completion rates and student engagement (I don’t think these are enormous challenges), more people might find that they like to learn online. It might simply be a better experience than attending classes—unless those classes happen to be on par with MOOCs. So while debates go on about whether online learning can ever be better than face-to-face learning, students—the consumers—might soon begin to do the opposite: wondering if it makes sense to go to university instead of taking MOOCs or MOOC-based degrees.

Employers want skills, not degrees. Unless someone has a degree from an elite institution globally or nationally, the degree itself doesn’t matter much. Students at elite colleges have great networking opportunities, but elsewhere students can bank only on their skills.

How many students around the world study at non-elite colleges? How many have no intention of studying beyond a bachelor’s degree? How many start getting anxious about finding a job well before they graduate? And when they start looking for jobs and interviewing, how many become frustrated that their university experience gave them few skills to work in the “real world”?

I think the answer to any of these questions is—the majority. And maybe the majority of students around the world would say yes to ALL of these questions. So this is a pretty large population of people who’re ready for change (MOOCs) and who might give up—I'm not saying today—what they’ve been used to (traditional degrees).

The key phrase in this argument is “around the world.” MOOCs have been for the world from the beginning. To take this a step further, Coursera has recently partnered with World Bank to make MOOCs more relevant for the developing world.

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