MOOC Fatigue and the Future of Universities

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Last week, I was visiting my hometown of Berlin for Online Educa, the largest global e-learning conference for the corporate, education and public service sectors. Besides doing some interviews and meeting interesting people in education from all over the world, I also took part in a panel discussion titled “Question Time.”It’s a format close to the popular show by the BBC and was moderated by Graham Attwell. The other panelists were Melanie Campbell of Bau ABC, Nick Kearney of Andamio, and Paul Glader of WiredAcademic.

I think that the first two questions were the most interesting ones, as they covered or reflected on the current buzz in higher education pretty nicely. The first one was about universities and whether they will still exist in five or ten years, followed by the second question asking if MOOCs are just a hype without any substance.

No more universities?

Though we all agreed that universities are here to stay, it was pretty obvious to everyone that universities will probably not look or feel like they do right now. Early signs of this shift are, of course, the MOOCs I’ll discuss later on, but also the general mindshift, especially in the tech sector.

Boiling it down to its essential, a degree is nothing more than the entrance certificate to a well-paid job. Yes, I know there are other (more important?) factors to it, but for the vast majority of students and parents who invest a degree program, it’s just that. And we all know that the return of investment of degrees has constantly spiraled downwards since the late 1980s as tuition costs rise.

If we take a look at the tech sector (since we can assume that most well-paid jobs will be somewhat related to creating or using technology), we see that a degree is not the only reason to hire someone anymore. One could say that it is even ranked pretty low on the list of reasons. Skills and a way to prove them are key for tech companies looking to hire talent. Aside from where you went to college, companies look for whether or not you can show them that you are a good programer or social media manager. They want to know your social reputation, your network, your profile on Github, etc.

Of course, there are still jobs that require classic degree programs. Still, technology jobs that take alternative education into consideration might bring back a healthy middle class, something that got lost in the past decades.

Our conclusion was that badges and life-long learning (and the tracking of it) will play a bigger role, while studying on campus or via the Internet will add extra value to the overall education.

Please, no more MOOCs!

The second question was accompanied by a somewhat nerved reaction from both the audience and panelists. Apparently, no one really wants to talk about MOOCs anymore, the panel included. In one of my last posts for Edcetera, I wrote about how MOOCs changed higher ed in 2012, and I think we all agree to the fact that MOOCs have been hyped a lot over the past months. The panelists agreed that MOOCs are nothing really that new or exciting. There have been online courses available for quite a while, so why all that buzz all of a sudden?

I pointed out that we as tech and edutech press/bloggers are, of course, part of the problem. MOOCs appeared on the landscape with a bang and truckloads of investor money. Silicon Valley and its blogger community loved this and practically “hijacked” the topic as “now technology is changing education in a big way.” Take that, ivory tower!

Certainly, we all (should) know that there is more to it than launching a platform, adding some videos and interactive features to it and then calling it a revolution. There have been free lectures, and even entire courses for free, on the Internet for years. The difference is that MOOCs are sexier, and have bigger partnerships with institutions.

Unlike most projects that come out of academia, MOOCs have taken the time to adapt the look and feel to today’s user. They look more like your favorite social network or video platform and not like a personal website from 1995. And that is actually a big deal, especially when you ask successful startup founders who invest a ton of time and research on how their products work.

On top of that, they got a huge amount of investment dollars, which make for a great TechCrunch, Forbes, or Fast Company headline. Millions of dollars are still a guaranteed click-through for an article.

All in all, I believe that there must be more to MOOCs than offering credit or matching top-tier students with top-tier companies. Therefore, my hope is still that at least they might show us that machine learning can lead to truly adaptive learning experiences. All the rest is just a new way to generate income for the universities without affecting their core on campus business model.

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