Educators, Embrace MOOCs Or Perish

Reposted with permission from YGS Group

The summer of my junior year at Brandeis University, in 2005, I interned for the Wellesley Townsman, a local paper covering a famous town in the Boston area.

My journalism professor, Michael Socolow, had created a forum on AIM chat for students to talk about their own work experiences. Online learning was very new then, and though I thoroughly enjoyed conversing with my colleagues, I had no idea how significant the impact this concept of “distance learning” would be in education.

I read a mind-blowing article by Steve Kolowich in the March 22 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education, detailing results of a massive open online course (MOOC) survey (see right). He tried to reach every professor who has taught a MOOC, 184 individuals—only 81 didn’t respond.

I’m elated by the results of the survey, especially in that 79 percent of respondents note that MOOCs are “worth the hype.”

“Hype around these new free online courses has grown louder and louder since a few professors at Stanford University drew hundreds of thousands of students to online computer-science courses in 2011,” Kolowich writes. “Since then MOOCs, which charge no tuition and are open to anybody with Internet access, have been touted by reformers as a way to transform higher education and expand college access.”

I speak with Curtis J. Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University. Bonk is also author of one of my favorite books about learning, The World is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education. I ask Bonk about the proliferating costs of college, and whether this has made MOOCs all the more attractive.

“We have an economic downturn and significant budget cuts, and unemployment and people questioning the quality of their face-to-face experiences in college at the same time,” Bonk says. “And then we have open-access to content emerging in the midst of the economic downturn and in the midst of the rising costs. Naturally, people are going to be looking at what are some options to that.”

I’m hopeful that MOOCs will play a large role in reducing the cost of higher learning , which has become downright absurd—regardless of however a school’s CFO justifies expenditures. As a senior, I remember paying Brandeis around $32-33 thousand, and this year tuition costs $40,515, according to a nifty CNNMoney calculator. I concede that state schools are much more affordable, but I’m still equally upset by soaring costs.

I’m thrilled by another aspect of The Chronicle’s survey results: “85 percent said the free courses would make traditional degrees at least marginally less expensive, and half of that group said it would lower the cost ‘significantly.’”

Gone are the days of “eyeball-to-eyeball learning,” Bonk says, noting that in today’s digital age, anybody can “learn anywhere at anytime.”

Bonk tells me how the Open University of Malaysia, which didn’t exist 12 years ago, has grown by 10,000 students a year—its enrollment is now over 100,000 students. The Open University of Indonesia currently has over 800,000 students enrolled.

“By 2060, we’re going to look back and say, ‘”We are in the learning century,”’ Bonk says. “Not the industrial age or the agricultural age.”

I ask Bonk about how online learning will change high school, and I’m upset that most media coverage of MOOCs focuses solely on higher education. Bonk and I agree on a crucial point: it’s a matter or when, not if, online learning will cement itself as a driving factor in schools across the nation.

By 2025, Bonk says half of one’s high school experience will be online. It’s possible, he says, for this shift to happen even earlier. I enjoy how Bonk talks about blended learning, and how schools across the country are using different models, “whether it’s alternating home and school, whether it’s using virtual primarily and having teachers available when you need them, or whether it’s rotation models of moving in and out of classrooms to labs and back to classrooms.”

I’m excited by these inevitable developments, but I ask Bonk if he worries about something being lost—specifically teacher-student relationships. He admits that he goes back-and-forth on this issue, as do I. But for any shortcoming, it’s impossible to deny all the tremendous benefits that online learning offers. Thanks to MOOCs, learning has become hip.

“Education has become something to talk about,” Bonk says. “If we can pitch it from the standpoint of career change and life change, it becomes no longer just a test score. It becomes no longer just sitting through something and grinding your teeth through some boring lecture. It becomes something exciting. It becomes identity.”

Bonk is working on a new book about “extreme learning,” which involves online education well beyond the confines of a classroom

“We just need to start marking down some of these life-changing stories of people learning in Afghanistan, getting MBAs in the middle of a war zone,” Bonk says.

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

1 Comment

  • Reply April 29, 2013

    Jorge Arteta

    The Brandeis University Summer Program has recently started offering online courses. It’s a bit shy compared to programs from universities with generous resources, such as the collaborative effort betwen Harvard and MIT with edX. Demand will play a significant role in the growth of MOOCs, and I know that it’s already an expectation from learners to have some access to educational choices online. Keep your readers abreat of new developments!

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