Are MOOCs still capable of reshaping higher education? Those of us who have been following MOOCs since the beginning are all too familiar with narrative that has surrounded them. First, there were the overblown predictions that MOOCs would bring about the downfall of higher education as we know it. Then, when that didn’t happen (at least not right away), MOOCs were dubbed a failure and pretty much forgotten about, at least by the mainstream media. However, in a keynote address at a recent education conference in Thailand, Willem van Valkenburg of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands suggested we might in fact be overlooking the real story about how MOOCs are quietly reshaping higher education.
Van Valkenburg started his talk by invoking Amara’s Law. While it may not be as well known as the Gartner Hype Cycle (MOOCs are currently in the “trough of disillusionment” according to this model), Amara’s Law states a similar principle. Namely, we tend to overestimate the impact of a new technology in the short term, even as we underestimate its longer term impact. According to van Valkenburg, MOOCs are already changing higher education in at least four important ways.
Fewer Restrictions On MOOCs for Credit
First there were courses. Then there were course series. Now, we are seeing a wave of MOOC offerings that include an option to earn credit towards specific degrees (through programs such as edX’s MicroMasters and Coursera’s MasterTrack). The next step, says van Valkenburg, is for this credit system to become more liquid, so that enrolled students in one university can take for-credit MOOCs from other universities. As Class Central has reported, van Valkenburg’s own Delft University of Technology has already pioneered such an approach through its Virtual Exchange program. Van Valkenburg expects more universities to do the same, making it easier to earn credit for MOOC-based studies.
Lifelong Learning, For Real
One of the popular criticisms of MOOCs is that they do not do a tremendous job of increasing access to higher education among those who didn’t have access before. But as it turns out, they do address a previously unmet need for continuous education among graduates. As MOOC enrollment numbers have shown, it turns out that freely available university courses are quite good at facilitating continuous education, particularly among university graduates. Most MOOC users are in their late 20s and older, working professionals who already hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
The Lecture Hall Goes Online
Some universities, TU Delft included, have started using MOOCs in on-campus teaching, as a way of delivering some portions of a course. This practice is known as blended learning. While case studies, discussions, and certain other learning activities are best done in person, MOOCs can be a good replacement for the kind of teaching that is typically done in a large lecture hall. As van Valkenburg explained it, “Our university wants to go to a mix of online and on-campus education. You can do a lot of teaching much better online, but you need the on-campus interaction of students with teachers. However, the traditional lecture hall is not the best way to facilitate that.” This change in pedagogy is also bringing about changes in the physical design of the campus. As van Valkenburg said, at his university the new classrooms being built are not lecture halls, but spaces that can facilitate blended learning. Who knows, the students of the future may never attend lecture-based courses in person.
A Global Education System
Perhaps the biggest change MOOCs will usher in is a move towards a global system of education. At present, higher education exists in a patchwork of national programs, all with different terminology, degree requirements, and pricing schemes. Already, students around the world travel to get the very best education available to them. MOOCs accelerate this trend by enabling a very easy form of virtual travel, allowing students literally anywhere on earth (so long as they have an internet connection) to access any course or degree program being offered by any university. The MOOC audience is by its very nature international and diverse. As more universities and higher education systems begin offering their degree programs online, we could be moving towards a single, global system of higher education.
To see Willem van Valkenburg’s full talk at The 9th TCU International e-Learning Conference, use the link below. The talk begins at roughly 22:00.
I got into MOOCs when I started a project to replicate a traditional MBA using free online courses. My blog at NoPayMBA.com resulted in a book called Don't Pay For Your MBA. I joined the team at Class Central in 2017.