The First Turning

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

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MOOCs and the Intention of Education

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.