27 Aug 2018


It’s been more than five years since online education got a massive boost when three free online courses, all taught by Stanford professors, launched in October 2011. Each of these courses has had over 100,000 students. Soon after that, Coursera, edX, and Udacity were launched and the media started calling the courses provided by these websites “MOOCs”: Massive Open Online Courses.

Since then more than 700 universities around the world have launched free online courses. By the end of 2016, around 58 million students had signed up for at least one MOOC. Many countries around the world (e.g. India, Mexico, Thailand, Italy, and more) have launched their own country-specific MOOC platform.

Enormous amounts of information are now available online for free, ready for watching, listening or reading at any time, by anyone who’s connected. For more than a decade, private companies, nonprofits and universities alike have been experimenting with online courses, often offered for free or at low cost to large numbers of students around the world. Research has shown that it’s as effective for students to use a combination of online courses and traditional in-classroom instruction as it is to just have classes in person.

Providers of massive open online courses (called “MOOCs”) are refining ways for people who complete the classes to present their accomplishments in ways employers can understand easily. For example, students in certain classes from major MOOC provider edX can get an official Arizona State University transcript listing their courses and grades. An employer would never know the person studied online.

In the sciences, most faculties are arguably already more researchers than teachers. Even if higher education was completely disrupted, the need to do basic research (and train PhD students to do research, which is definitely not about to be replaced with MOOCs and is already self-funding) isn’t going anywhere as long as government and foundations consider federally funded research something worth doing.

In the humanities, research is a smaller piece of the pie, but these are also the sorts of classes that aren’t particularly disruptable with MOOCs: humanities classes have for ages been based on highly and relatively cheap available material (books). The value added comes in curation (picking the right books), context (the expertise of all the other information tying it to everything else and filling in the gaps of the student to understanding the material), and individualize practice and feedback (class discussions, feedback on writing). These are all things that benefit from hands on attention with someone with a great deal of expertise, which is really hard to replace. This is also true of seminar classes in the sciences: there’s no easy way to replace being in the room with a true expert in the field.

At best, technology might change what types of classes are offered and how they’re offered: it’s easy to imagining flipped classes where students watch videos from one of the best lecturers in the world before going off to lab or discussion section. Better technology might also make remote education better, where you’d discuss the subject with people from all over the world. At the end of the day however, we’re a very long way away from any sort of technology disrupting one on one interactions with an expert in the field with a decent grasp of pedagogy.

Universities are undergoing transformation at an unprecedented rate. They are increasing online offerings and putting out more of their content online and almost free. However, they are not cutting prices to attend in person. This untenable gap could cause the demise of university system, at least a large number of them. looking within next 20 years, universities will still be around, though changing themselves and shrinking in numbers. This is because the alternative forms of education have not gained critical mass in being accepted in real world as a job qualifier.

Article by: Busayo Tomoh

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