My introduction to this issue came several months ago when my husband, who works in higher education, passed on to me a video he had seen, called EPIC 2020. This very provocative video discusses the rapid progress of open education systems and forecasts the end of higher education as we know within the next ten years. (I recommend checking out the video here if you haven’t seen it.) Although I found the video fascinating, I don’t think the time-frame for a complete overhaul of education is realistic or advisable. Although MOOCs and other incarnations of open education show remarkable potential, I for one don’t see them replacing traditional educational institutions, but rather offering a broad spectrum of options for lifelong learning that complement school as we know it.
So if the concept of free open courses is so exciting in terms of universal access to information, why shouldn’t it replace our current educational system? For me, the answer to this question comes down to community. Learning, as in meaningful learning that will be retained, is so much more than soaking up information. It occurs through dialogue, connections with others, and interaction with the material learned. This can happen best (I would argue) in a physical classroom with real people. The best online courses can mimic these human connections by creating a vibrant online community of discussions and meaningful feedback on assignments. Can MOOCs create these communities of learners in a class of 100,000 students from around the world? Perhaps, but I have yet to be convinced.
So, no, I do not get excited about a future in which colleges and universities fade into obscurity while MOOCs take over education. HOWEVER, I believe that MOOCs have enormous potential as an alternative or complement to our higher education system. In certain fields, MOOCS may be an ideal way to learn. For students who cannot afford (or do not choose to invest in) a traditional university degree, MOOCs may be an ideal way to learn. For life-long, self-directed professional development, MOOCs may be an ideal way to learn. To sum up, when I finish my library degree at Syracuse, I very well may use MOOCs as an avenue to continue my learning. But do I think that MOOCs could replace all that my Syracuse program has offered in terms of building community, connections with professors, and meaningful feedback on my work? No, no, and no.