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The Future of Education

Will MOOCs will replace “traditional” online universities?

This blog entry is based off of a relatively heated Yahoo Forum discussion about what adjuncts and the for-profit education sector can expect as a result of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) model. If you have not yet heard of it, I can promise you will soon.

Many online and higher education professionals make the argument that the MOOC model will threaten the existence of the entire for profit education model, reframe how education is approached in the United States, and is a baseline for what the future of higher education will look like – including removing the need for all forms of accreditation.

Does it sound drastic? It did to me too – at first.

Upon further exploration and conversations with experts involved with these organizations and their expansion and growth, they truly see it as an evolution of education – much like online education was 15 years ago – and many believe that in the next decade it could replace traditional education as we know it. The New York Times recently published an article titled, The Year of the MOOC. As noted in the article, one provider alone reached 1.7 million users in 11 months – growth faster than Facebook. Professors in Ivy League colleges are leaving to join MOOCs, a combination of tech startup, massive educational efforts and an internet-based entrepreneurial endeavors.

MOOCs started with some big name universities, Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Duke and more. We are beginning to see more companies and entrepreneurs take the plunge into a for-profit MOOC model, developing courses by the hundreds or thousands, with a very long waiting list of students wanting to take courses.

While almost all of the schools we work for charge tuition, offer some form credit hour for the courses students take and limit the number of students one instructor has, this is not usually the case with a MOOC. Just as its name implies, the open source element of a MOOC means that students usually can “attend” for free. Anyone can enroll, and courses are usually designed around an assumption that interactivity will take place without the instructor. Students who want or need to work in groups will need to join their own online forums.  For most of these schools, students do not need text books and the developer has written or recorded his or her own lecture. There are numerous free open source sites out there making material available to MOOCs and they are growing in number every month.

Of course there are drawbacks – many in fact.

First, we cannot really control cheating, and grading is often done by a course grader who may or may not know the material. Some MOOCs prefer that designers use self-graded assignments. Students may not be up for the academic challenge, and particularly where big name universities are involved, students earn a certificate from their instructor, not from the university. If presumably the best instructors are going to put lectures up and allow students to earn certificates for free, one might argue the education could be better than at an accredited college where someone earns a degree from a university with not-so-great instructors. If our goal is truly education and not necessarily a piece of paper stamped by the DOE, this could very well be the model of education in the US in the future.

Many of our Yahoo members (online professors) asked what I think about this topic and if I think it “threatens our work” as instructors. I think it threatens the status quo, and will require us to shift the way we think about education and how we think about our own educational development. Our goal is to educate the masses as educators, touch as many lives as possible. This is an enormous way to do that.

If I was fortunate enough to own a smaller for-profit online school with a lot of overhead, I would probably want to sell – soon. I believe that many students and even educators will opt for this model; however it is going to take a paradigm shift away from the “accreditation is the only way to go” mentality, and will require us to focus on who is providing education and the quality of education, and not the seal of approval we want in today’s climate from colleges.

This model is still in its infancy. We will begin to see some new for-profit colleges adopt this paradigm. Some will argue that without accreditation, MOOCs are useless. Others argue that a school with only national accreditation already is, primarily due to lack of transferability of units. If that is true, how is a MOOC any worse? It perhaps could be better. And free.

My bottom line: the accreditation model overseen by the DOE is outdated in the US. I have been through it with several schools and it appears, to me, to be more red tape and less focus on quality than when I went through the same process 15 years ago. Many for-profit nationally accredited schools are only now beginning to start their regional accreditation process, at least 2 to 3 years out. Some haven’t begun that yet. By the time they do, they just may find themselves irrelevant. In my view, the transition will largely depend on how quickly the population adapts to free education written by top notch professionals. Oh.. wait…

So what should you do to hedge your workload if you work as an online instructor? Get familiar with MOOCs. Understand their compliance needs to open source material. Apply as a course developer or grader. Get your feet wet – I have a pretty strong feeling we will all be fully submerged in the next few years.

Happy Teaching!

Dani Babb, Ph.D., MBA is a blogger for JenningsWire.