The First Turning

A worldwide climate of positive change and hope for the future.

MOOCs and the Intention of Education

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The other day I read a U.S. News & World Report piece titled Where Do MOOCs Fit in Higher Education? The article mainly showcased the view of detractors of MOOCs—specifically focused on the coalition of faculty leaders that comprises The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE), which last week issued letters to the heads of Coursera, edX and Udacity, and produced an accompanying video.

The central criticism in the letters and video was that these companies assert their online platforms to be a fix-all for education, particularly for underdeveloped areas and underserved populations—a claim that CFHE vehemently rebuts. The article goes on to highlight how the issue isn’t just with providing access to remote residents, but the lack of follow-through that occurs in a less social online environment: “… nearly all (90 percent) of those who register for MOOCs fail to complete them. Those who do complete the courses often already have a college degree.”

The letters and video do not mark the first time this group has voiced skepticism of online education providers—last fall it released three papers questioning the interest of private companies in these ventures, the promoted cost-savings, and whether or not the courses block access for people in some cases.

I am well aware of related and other criticisms of MOOCs, many of which I touch on in the chapter “From Malala to MOOCs: Educating the Planet” in The First Turning. Below is an excerpt in which I outline the concerns I’ve observed.

There are very few MOOCs offered for credit. Traditional universities are hesitant to give the seal of approval to this newcomer.

They highlight the Digital Divide. MOOCs are great as long as the enrollee has Internet access. The idea of “wiring the world” by providing Internet access in every part of the planet is fast becoming an issue. It is argued that online education needs to be provided for all citizens of the planet.

The business model for MOOCs remains hazy. Venture capitalists are eager to invest, however, there will come a day when MOOC providers must be self-sustaining. There is no current business model to suggest that a viable profit is in the offing.

Many university professors are leery of a platform that they see can potentially eliminating their jobs. The pushback from tenured faculty has been especially vocal.

While all concerns are valid, I think that detractors are missing the mark, particularly with regard to the aforementioned article and the issue of Internet access. One example of this repeated sentiment in the article is a quote by Frederick Kowal, president of United University Professions, who says, “The idea that you’re going to get underresourced individuals into a MOOC is based on unreality.”

Online education companies and MOOC platforms don’t claim to be broadband service providers or to perfectly support participants in completing a course, for that matter. What they seek to do is provide opportunity and access where once there was not, and to do it with the intention of people across the world being able to participate as suits their individual needs and interests. Anant Agarwal, chief executive officer of edX, sums it up well with one small phrase found within a quote in the article: “promoting the advancement of education.”

It seems to me that, at least at this point when the MOOC concept and pertinent technological infrastructure are still emerging and evolving, it is unproductive to argue the finer points of exactly who has access and where. What about focusing on the intention behind MOOCs instead?

The bottom line is that everyone can and should have access to education, no matter who they are or where they are from.

Highlighting this intention is precisely why I paired MOOCs with Malala Yousafzai in The First Turning. She has become emblematic of the power of education, particularly in underserved areas, and, as a result of her experience with the Taliban, is a crusader for universal education. Her voice isn’t that of a Silicon Valley capitalist. It is that of an innocent but informed girl who sees how a deficit in education and lack of dialogue about learning negatively impacts people and cultures in every corridor of the world – including her own. It is the voice of someone who sees the powerful potential for change.

Online education platforms are not a perfect product. Yet. But, the article does reference Daphne Koller, cofounder and president of Coursera, as expressing awareness of the challenges and taking measures to eliminate some of the obstacles—such as developing the Learning Hubs program to provide locations around the world with free Internet.

It will take time to put systems in place that reach everywhere and everyone, and people are working to make it happen. For now, though, the fact remains that access to education is expanding in ways that are unprecedented. Whether an individual already has earned a degree and lives in a Westernized country or has never gone to school and lives in a developing nation, people with the appetite to learn are finding sustenance.

And in my mind, any opportunity to grow and cultivate knowledge and understanding in the world is a good thing, and is something that should be encouraged for all citizens of the world.

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Author: thefirstturning

This blog was created as a way to continue sharing the information and emotion behind The First Turning: A Vision of America and a World at Peace. I wanted a platform that could persist beyond the stories and anecdotes published in the book, where an active dialogue can be maintained about the global community as we seek to uncover a new, more peaceful world. My book builds off of the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe in The Fourth Turning, in which the authors identified a distinct generational pattern in American history that they further segmented into a four-fold cycle to describe the corresponding shifts in cultural mood, each one spanning approximately 20 years. Their research extended back to the 16th century and was consistent for over 400 years. The First Turning is a High—a post-crisis emergence of strong societal collectiveness. The Second Turning is an Awakening—an era in which public process is at its peak and people are eager to recapture personal authenticity. The Third Turning is an Unraveling—a time when individualism is flourishing but institutions are weak. The Fourth Turning is Crisis—a time when the nation’s survival seems threatened. Fascinated by their work after, I began to pay attention more closely to the national climate and discourse surrounding daily happenings. At the time, in 2009, we were deep in crisis. Economic collapse, war, natural disasters… I listened to and absorbed the chaos. While I was able to actively apply their findings and theory to the world around me, I noticed something different—something not fully accounted for in their work. I noticed on the one hand that it wasn’t just our nation in disrepair but, in many ways, the world. I noticed too that the dialogue surrounding these events was broad and diverse, not limited to our national citizenry. As my research deepened and expanded, it became clear to me that today’s technological globalization—only a distant vision when Strauss and Howe published their work in 1997—was creating both a domino effect among the economies and societies across the world, and that that same technology was also responsible for repairing the hardship. Technology today is animating our ability to reach beyond borders and barriers to inspire collaboration and affect change in every corner of the earth. As a result of this, it occurred to me that we as a civilization were nearing a First Turning much sooner than anticipated. Technology is actively influencing humankind’s evolution in the context of these generational tides. It is that evolution that I wanted to capture in The First Turning: A Vision of America and a World at Peace, and that I hope to continue with here.

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