Distance Learning | Viewpoint

Lifting All Boats: How MOOCs Can Bring Higher Ed Together

Steven Mintz, executive director of the Institute for Transformational Learning at the University of Texas System, writes that instead of arguing about whether MOOCs will stratify education or threaten tenure and job security for instructors, educators should see them as an opportunity to rethink pedagogy and instructional design for a new century and a new generation of students.

The slogan most often associated with MOOCs, or massive open online courses, is "free courses taught by leading professors from the world's top universities." Some find this vision appealing: unshackling knowledge and those who produce it by expanding access to learning to anyone, anywhere (to paraphrase the second most popular slogan associated with MOOCs). Others view this seemingly noble aspiration with increasing alarm. It raises the specter of faculty displacement, or faculty as free agents competing like sports stars, with only a few slots for the best of the best.

Those concerned with the so-called disruption in the academy are, however, more than just worried about tenure and job security. Online learning, they fear, could lead to something far more sinister: A stratified system of higher education, where elite universities provide a face-to-face education to the privileged few while everyone else receives the 21st century version of correspondence courses, complete with machine grading.

In fact, the now ubiquitous debate inspired by MOOCs is misleading. Students, on campus and off, have long been voting with their feet, rapidly and eagerly embracing all forms of digital knowledge, from lectures on iTunes to TED talks to fully online courses. This is a generation raised on Google and shaped by social networking, all of whom expect everything to be freely available at a time of their choosing.

Not surprisingly, much emphasis has been placed on the words "massive" and "open" in the word MOOC, so much so that other objectives are obscured. Even the word "course" is problematic as it hides the L word: learning.

The essential challenge is to create online learning environments that result in successful student learning outcomes. After all, isn't learning what higher education is supposed to be about and what faculty should be eager to embrace?

I am happy to say yes — and to say yes on behalf of the academic partners (of which, my own institution, the University of Texas at Austin, is one) that came together to form the xConsortium of edX, the not-for-profit online learning enterprise founded by Harvard and MIT one year ago.

All of us in the xConsortium welcome the opportunity to expand access to education. But that is just one of our aspirations that include:

  • Developing next generation online learning, courses that genuinely enhance student engagement, persistence, and learning by offering improved navigation, personalized adaptive learning, e-advising, and an augmented social dimension;
  • Creating e-learning tools, including animations, simulations, virtual reality environments, interactive laboratories, and spaces for collaborative creation of multimedia projects — which can be used in face-to-face as well as online classes; and
  • Conducting intensive research into student learning and devising learning dashboards that will allow instructors to adjust instruction in real time and to continuously improve their courses over time.

Our ultimate aim is to improve pedagogy on-campus as well as online and to stimulate learning research to improve instruction and student engagement and learning.

Returning to those, rightly so, worried about the future of residential higher education, it is important to note that, to date, the primary audience for MOOCs has consisted of working adults who already hold degrees. Many completers are highly motivated autodidacts, or those who would be successful using any means to learn, from textbooks to television.

The members of the edX consortium, especially those from public institutions like my own, have other audiences — or learners — in mind. We worry intensely about the segments that higher education serves poorly or not at all either due to a lack of vision or, in many cases, lack of finances. These include high school juniors and seniors taking early college or dual degree courses who might benefit from courses more closely aligned with college curricula. Likewise, lower-division undergraduates, many of whom fail to pass pinch point courses with historically high failure rates, could also take advantage of the wealth of new virtual learning opportunities.

The democratization of higher education — one of the signal achievements of the past half century — has also created challenges in the form of more non-traditional students, such as students with learning disabilities, students less well-prepared, and students struggling to balance family and work with their studies.

We have a massive opportunity, and an obligation, to help these students to be successful. Many of these students need online courses simply to complete their degrees, on campus or otherwise. As important, they will need courses with elements ideally suited for experimental online learning platforms, such as embedded remediation and greatly improved navigation tools.

Whatever other effects MOOCs have had, they have served as a catalyst for more intense discussions about teaching and learning than I have witnessed in the preceding 30 years. I have seen first-hand with my colleagues in the edX consortium how we, as teachers and leaders in higher education, can all come together to share what we know and rethink pedagogy and instructional design for a new century and a new generation of students.

Online education is going to become a greater part of the educational mix. That's not debatable. Rather than be trapped in a debate, we should remain focused on learning and learners. By working collaboratively, we can respond to today's great educational challenge, developing the pedagogies, tools, and platforms that will promote student success in online courses.

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