MOOCs Are Here to Stay

What lies in store for universities, business, engineering, and science schools when every ounce of knowledge is available online, for free?

The most prestigious universities in the United States—Stanford, MIT, Harvard—have hopped on the MOOC bandwagon. What is a MOOC? It’s a “Massive Open Online Course,” or the ability to diffuse the sacred scientific word across the globe, digitally. MOOCs are to Stanford what the Urbi et Orbi blessing is to the Vatican; the chance to spread the sacred word from the comfort of your  home or to anyone, anywhere.

We know the Internet as a vast resource for users around the globe to inform and become informed. Colleges and universities use it to flaunt their online offerings, informally establishing a “Who’s Who” list of those that make the cut and those that do not quite measure up. MOOCs may be broken down into two categories: dogmatic and collaborative. The first resembles a lecture hall-type setting. The other is more group-oriented, pooling together a variety of individuals, be they professors, learners or third parties, for the purposes of giving and gathering information on topics in common to all participants.

How is the Internet and the hyper-interaction with knowledge setting in motion an entirely new way of being? At some of our best universities, every single class and every bit of knowledge born from the greatest minds will be available to anyone at the click of a mouse. The price of this knowledge is likely to be practically nothing at all. A new kind of academic imperialism may be emerging alongside a new economic order.

The leading, wealthy universities are rolling out their best MOOCs with help from a second-to-none line-up of professors, thus giving themselves a competitive advantage to showcases their academic breadth and expertise. This is happening just as American schools are revisiting course design and overall operations, and the financial bubble has pushed student debt go through the roof. 

Low-income American households can no longer afford a college education. For the middle class it takes 25 years to pay off school loans. Universities are becoming out of reach; their mission to diffuse knowledge is proving available to only a select few. Their funding relies on student-fed debt. 

Things become even more complicated in a job market, which cannot guarantee a spot to every graduate. With a price tag well outside the majority of average-earning households, U.S. universities have no other choice but to tackle new, more global markets.

French schools, too, are giving in to “” It is all about being in the right place at the right time. There are even MOOCs that create MOOCs. They are everywhere you look on the web, though clearly laid-out strategies or instructions on how to follow the movement  are ,missing.

The “wall-less school” where students no longer come to class but rather follow their curriculum from wherever they may be, would be a genuine breakthrough for a project with limitless potential. 

A model of this approach exists at Anadolu University, in Eskisehir, Turkey, a city of 40,000. The school boasts an annual enrollment of more than a million Business students from across the globe. In fact, this may be the world’s largest university. In this university students do not interact as they would in a traditional classroom setting, which may, after all, not be as indispensable to the learning process as once thought.  

Science is universal, so is management training. Efforts made by Business Schools to develop marketing or management models enable themto offer classes in MOOC mode, just like for any scientific discipline. Experimentation is taking a back seat to theory-based approaches to teaching. Hands-on workshops and small group collaboration are fading. This shift I opens schools up to a wide range of multimedia-driven, educational possibilities across a number of subjects.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to grasp the reasons online classes. In a nutshell, the aim is to get the maximum amount of information out to as many students as possible, a setup that sparks images of virtual auditoriums filled with 1K, 10K, and even 100K students. In addition, the MOOCs put local schools in the spotlight worldwide, provided that the language of instruction is accessible by the maximum number of people. Offering MOOCs in French, for instance,  compromises the messages’ universal breadth, unless used for conveying a politically-, culturally- or identity-related point.

MOOCs mean making the best classes accessible to all. So, when everything is possible, why opt for less when we can have more? Why would you take a MOOC on “Design Thinking” in France when IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown teaches it at Stanford’s Institute of Design and D.School, and it’s just a click away? 

If money is not an issue you may as well take a class at Harvard. Because of this new access to education, the rivalry between schools is likely to take on mammoth dimensions, 

Competition will know no limits when it comes to implementing a “divide-and-conquer” strategy to acquire mobile and “multi-connected” student markets. But winning them over will come down to the label associated with the degree and the clout it bears among top-ranking schools. 

Today, MOOCs are having a hard time bringing students on board. And when they do, they show significant dropout rates. Yet the once impossible quest of obtaining the most prestigious degree is now within every stundent’s reach, and this is bound to curtail the number of dropouts we’re seeing today.

The danger lies in concentrating all human knowledge in big-name schools that boast the most prominent faculties and are empowered with the greatest means of communication. Other schools will have to have to propose more specialized areas of study, and ensure that what they offer is relevant, sound, and unparalleled.  

The question remains: What lies ahead for universities and schools that offer a general education? Instead of creating MOOCs, perhaps it would make more sense for them to invent the school of tomorrow. They might favor hands-on learning and experimentation, further students' confidence to take on the role of teacher by entrusting them with the freedom to devise and design, foster learning, exchange, and synergy by bringing people together to share and swap theories and applications, be it in small groups, or workshops. In this way they would fuel and feed the creative appetite, giving us the means and mental force to imagine a different world, a world that puts the environment on a pedestal, respects its moral obligations,  where technology rhymes with humanity, and the economy champions progress and not simply financial gain.

As director of the École de Design, I have no chance of putting together a better MOOC than Stanford and Tim Brown has done on Design Thinking. But in our workshops our  students. taught by excellent designers will know how to put together the world of tomorrow, using information of the world, from around the world. 

Christian Guellerin has been president of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Schools of Design, Art and Media since 2007. Under his leadership the organization grew from 80 to 178 establishments in 44 countries in 2008; today they’re expanding to China and India. He is also the executive director of the Ecole de design Nantes Atlantique, which trains professionals to create and innovate for socio-economic development, with an interface between technology, economics, and the sciences. He writes frequently on design and pedagogy and teaches in several schools and universities in France and abroad.

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