When a new product is launched, particularly in technology, people often rush to be among its early adopters. The sudden explosion of users invariably reveals bugs and glitches that need to be addressed.
This is analogous to what we appear to be witnessing right now with massive open online courses. An unrelenting stream of attention-grabbing announcements is being followed by closer inspection – and the realization that, although MOOCs are a novel approach to education, they may not be a panacea.
The picture of MOOCs presented in the press is quite a paradox. The concept has been described as both a game-changer and a hyped retread. MOOCs deliver great content to faraway places, but some believe they place academic quality in peril. They are financial enigmas — offering the potential to bend the higher education cost curve, yet lacking an accepted plan for monetization. Some leaders in higher education are scrambling to get into the game; others are issuing a call to slow down.
The contradictions are rich, and the hyperbole in full bloom. Personally, I find all of the discourse to be a positive sign. The intensity of the MOOC dialogue indicates a chord has been struck. The promise of technology and access is igniting a larger discussion about the higher education paradigm. The initial rush has evolved, but what’s next? Where is this train ultimately headed?
First, let’s keep in mind that in the technology adoption life cycle, MOOCs are probably somewhere between innovation and early adoption; it’s too early to declare victory or to reject the concept before it has been further tested, evaluated and refined. Second, colleges and universities are ground zero in the exploration of ideas. If you can’t experiment here, then where?
In thinking about this issue as an engineer, I am reminded of the Wright Brothers and their pursuit of human flight. The brothers’ first test glider in 1900 failed to achieve the altitude that Wilbur and Orville had anticipated. So they revisited their equations and re-analyzed the aerodynamic data obtained from the aviator, Otto Lilienthal. They increased the size of the wings and refined the sloped surface of the airfoil, but additional adjustments brought the same disappointing results. It would be another two and a half years before the Wright brothers succeeded in launching and controlling a powered aircraft.
What if their early struggles with the gliders had gotten the better of the Wrights? How much longer might humankind had to wait to fly?
The same might be asked today of MOOCs. The dawn of a new academic year seems an appropriate time to contemplate such questions and share a few observations on higher education’s latest grand experiment:
1. The prospect of MOOCs replacing the physical college campus for undergraduates is dubious at best. Other target audiences are likely better-suited for MOOCs. My university, the Georgia Institute of Technology, is preparing to offer an inexpensive M.S. degree in computer science via massive (but not open) online courses beginning January 2014, with two options. The on-campus version has a research emphasis, requiring one-on-one interaction, whereas the online degree caters to professionals by focusing on applying advanced knowledge in the workplace. If successful, thousands are expected to enroll in this $7,000 MS degree program.
2. In addition to the master’s level, MOOCs may also help level the playing field for precollege education. This is another area of the MOOC wilderness being explored. With a $150,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, Georgia Tech is offering MOOCs in three introductory topic areas for people who have yet to pursue a college degree. One can also easily extrapolate and imagine MOOC-like advanced placement courses available to students at high schools without their own Advanced Placement offerings.
3. Despite challenges, delivering content online could be a real asset to enhance pedagogy for undergraduates as well. The inverted classroom – in which students and faculty convene solely for discussion, and all lectures take place online – appears to have significant promise. For example, a recent comparison between a standard fluid mechanics course at Georgia Tech and its "flipped" counterpart revealed that weaker students in the flipped classroom actually outperformed stronger students who experienced traditional delivery of the material.
American higher education finds itself at a pivotal point in its great MOOC experiment. We must continue working to optimize MOOCs so that their promise and potential can be realized. While operational and execution issues remain, MOOCs still represent a tremendous opportunity for people around the world to learn and for educators to study and optimize that learning process.
A realistic time frame for evaluating the successes, failures, and unanticipated results is still likely another three to five years away. But, as Wilbur Wright said about learning to fly: "If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial."
Gary S. May is dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology.