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What is the Role of MOOCs in the Landscape of Higher Education?

“The battle for the future of higher ed has landed—at least for the time being—on a concept few in academe had even heard of a year ago: the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC.” The statement made by Jeff Selingo in the Chronicle of Higher Education article MOOC’s Aren’t a Panacea, but That Doesn’t Blunt Their Promise reflects the relatively high interest in the future of MOOCs in higher education. Selingo offers the following view of MOOCs:“…I can imagine how the format might reduce costs, improve learning, increase access, and maybe produce revenue for a few universities. The problem is that MOOCs probably can’t do all four things at any one institution—and that’s the reason they are not “the” solution to the myriad of problems facing higher ed.”

The view that MOOCs are not the solution to all of the problems in higher education is a common view, whereas the view that MOOCs have the power to improve learning, with regards to higher education, is more controversial. Siva Vaidhyanathan argues in his blog post, What’s the Matter With MOOCs? that there is a stark difference in between learning that occurs during a MOOC and receiving education from one. Regarding MOOCs, he observes “I have learned a lot about a lot of things beyond my expertise from them. My life is richer because of them. MOOCs inform me. But they do not educate me. There is a difference.” He continues, “For the more pedestrian MOOCs, the simple podium lecture captured and released, the difference between a real college course and a MOOC is like the difference between playing golf and watching golf. Both can be exciting and enjoyable. Both can be boring and frustrating. But they are not the same thing.”

Selingo, however, does not agree with the premise that universities are offering the education that Vaidhyanathan alludes to, stating that, “The assumption seemed to be that the current methods of teaching on college campuses were working just fine. Again, maybe so at the University of Virginia, where some of the best scholars are teaching some of the best students. But we know from a 2011 book, Academically Adrift, that American higher education is ‘characterized by limited or no learning’ for a large proportion of students.” He quotes Richard Arum, as saying, “You can’t assume that in sending off a student to a typical college that they’re going to get a rigorous education… You can’t trust these institutions to police themselves.”

Selingo admits that MOOCs are not a panacea, but that does not discount their value or keep them from being a productive piece of the education system. Selingo argues, “Like so many debates about the future of higher ed, the discussion about MOOCs has quickly devolved into an all-or-nothing argument. The format must offer answers to all of higher ed’s problems or be as good as or better than what we do currently, critics say, or it’s a failure itself. But thousands of students around the world have completed the MOOCs offered so far, with many of them performing as well as students on the residential home campuses where the courses were created.”

A common argument begs the question, can MOOCs deliver high-quality education that is synonymous with the traditional courses offered by many of the universities that are endeavoring to join the “battle,” or do MOOCs belong in a category with other learning experiences that failed to offer true education? Is this the right question, though? Instead, might we ask what is the intrinsic value of this learning tool? Should we settle for debating whether MOOCs are judged as either a savior or a failure, or can we ask what these experimental courses can show us about the future of higher education?

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