MOOCs in their strict, literal sense have relatively limited potential primarily as branding for institutions and individual professors. Secondarily, they may supplement course material for students in accredited institutions or life-long learning exercises not unlike the offerings of the Teaching Company (except that thus far, they are for free, and include assignments, not just passive listening). Do they have the potential to be more? Lots of people think so, including a group of professors at Harvard, in direct response to California system professors who have objected. Thomas Friedman of The New York Times gets their point, but rather than rue it, he praises it.
MOOCs, if nothing else, are a lightning rod for virtually all that thrills and ails contemporary higher education. As such, the discourse around them can become confusing. As a IHE blogger I have found this to be the case almost every time I mention them, either in this blog or as a commentator to articles or other blogs. Responders have done everything from correcting my grammar to supporting points that I do not believe I have even made. The early copyright debates that broke out in the oughts had a similar quality. I would give a talk or write an article wherein I called for balance, but would find comments and questions that attempted with centrifugal force to interpret from the extremes.
As previously noted, in two weeks I will be giving an address on "What Liberal Arts Education Can Do For MOOCs" to a conference of American universities abroad academic librarians in Rome, Italy. When I develop those materials, I will share. For the moment I want to sum up my views on MOOCs to date.
First, MOOCs are not the problem, but I do believe that what higher education does with them could be. Second, not only are MOOCs a lightning rod about everything from the price of college education to relations between faculty and administration, they are also a moving target. They may already or will come to mean different things for different institutions and constituencies: faculty, staff and students. Hence so many reactions, so many ideas, so many misunderstandings. Officially I am neither for nor against them. Only thinking makes them so …
Third, I leverage the discourse to advance my pet ideas about undergraduate education that I developed almost ten years. At that time, I referred to it as "global education," but I am not out to defend names. The concept is neither "massive" nor "open," but it is on-line and does involved accredited institutions and courses. To promote active learning, to some degree "flipped classrooms," international connections within the process of teaching and learning, and undergraduate information and digital literacy, I advocate that institutions incentivize faculty through promotion and tenure of faculty to work with colleagues in institutions around the world, within and among the disciplines, to create collaborative courses that include "lecture" as well as facilitated, guided undergraduate research. More important than the process is the purpose. These course may involve "the basics" (although that there is where a MOOC might come in handy) but they strive to apply "the basics" to real, contemporary global challenges.
What are global challenges? From an article  I wrote some years ago, here is a sample list:
- How to work toward environmental sustainability on a comprehensive scale, including prevention of global warming and of the extinction of many species.
- How to create international jurisdiction and substantive law in order to settle legal disputes.
- How to shape a developmental model of a global economy that distributes resources — including education — equitably and fairly around the world.
- How to inculcate an understanding of local or national culture, history, and traditions sufficiently to encourage tolerance of each others religions, manners, and mores.
- How to deploy all layers (physical, logical, and applications) of the Internet while also developing international governing bodies and policy principles for information and communications technologies, including search engines and the repositories of information and knowledge.
- How to optimize agricultural research on a global scale in order to eliminate starvation and hunger.
- How to research, manage, and treat disease—and thus provide reasonable health care, including pharmaceuticals — around the world.
- How to understand the human condition through the study of cross-cultural and transhistorical art, literature, languages, and humanities.
- How to live the ethics of scientific research, whether it be the exploration of outer space (and its expenses, given other needs), particle and nuclear physics (and the creation of such devastatingly destructive technologies), Internet and data networking technologies (the use of highly flawed proprietary operating systems without consequence to the companies making profit, notwithstanding the consequences that result to users from those flaws), or genomics and the creation of species for which we do not yet know all of the intended, or unintended, consequences.
Will this approach change undergraduate education? I hope so. I don't believe that the strict, 19th century disciplinary model is appropriate for undergraduate education. Will it prepare students better for the workplace? I think so, because it involves problem-solving, active learning, teamwork and group projects, and interaction that is inclusive of diverse peoples. Does it signal the end of colleges and universities as know them. I don't think so, I believe it will strengthen them. Done well, it should make faculty more, not less vital to the process. It will enhance the role of staff professionals such as librarians and information technologists. And it is designed to make learning interesting and education relevant to students who should be leaving our institutions with these skills as well as with "facts."
I advocate this design of undergraduate education. In discussions, I use the attention that MOOCs draw to bring eyes and ears to these concepts. In practice, if MOOCs can support this design, for example to deliver "the basics," then in that context I am for them. But they are both theoretically and practically a means to this end, one that I believe holds genuine hope for higher education in, yes, the 21st century.