The value of MOOCs lies with employers

Massive Open Online Courses may be fun and cheap, but they don’t really replicate the on-campus experience. Flickr/Sharla Sava, CC BY-SA

One often sees news stories about how changes in information technology are killing off different industries. Newspapers are read online rather than in print, and who bought a book in a physical shop lately? The bricks-and-mortar shops are fewer and fewer and the offerings online steadily increasing. One of the latest sectors said to be under threat from technological change is the higher education sector.

If one is to believe what one reads, (almost all) universities might as well start packing up and closing down. However, what we’re witnessing is exaggerated hype.

Fear makes good news stories. And technology fears are particularly “saleable” as people seem to have a great interest in technology and a long-standing fear of technology taking over the world - remember the Y2K hype?

In light of this, it is not surprising that technology fears spark all sorts of doomsday prophecies. But is there any substance to the claims of technology killing off the traditional university?

The claims

A recent article in The Economist contained a rather typical report on the likely effect technology will have on the university. Essentially the article, titled “Creative Destruction”, presented a number of standard claims. For example, it pointed to the following factors as fundamentally undermining the model universities have relied upon since Aristotle:

Flickr/catspyjamasnz, CC BY
  • rising costs;

  • stagnant productivity;

  • changing demand;

  • changes in the employment market for graduates (in no small part due to technology advances);

  • declining public funding; and

  • disruptive technologies.

More specifically, on the point of technology, the article concluded:

The internet, which has turned businesses from newspapers through music to book retailing upside down, will upend higher education. Now the MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course, is offering students the chance to listen to star lecturers and get a degree for a fraction of the cost of attending a university.

The reality

The offering of distance education is nothing new. For quite some time, distance education has been a competitor of the traditional university model. I suspect that, just as the forms of distance education we have grown accustomed to suit some people better than the traditional university model does, so will MOOCs be a better fit for some students.

For example, the flexibility offered may suit students on a Masters level, who often combine studies with work and who, in any case, often work quite independently. Another obvious market is students in developing countries whom it’s difficult to reach using older forms of distance education, and for whom university campuses in developed countries are inaccessible.

No doubt much good can be achieved through MOOCs, but when it comes to the typical undergraduate student coming to the university as a school leaver, I suspect MOOCs represent very much a second-best option. The reality is that they need guidance, preferably in small classes where they can get personal attention.

Universities that can offer this will always have a market. And after all, the university experience should include more than just classes and studies. I doubt many hormonal 19-year-olds would prefer studying MOOCs from their parents’ basement to being on a campus full of other 19-year-olds, about half of whom are of the opposite gender.

The ignored, but crucially important, end-user

Those who, out of fear or for other reasons, promote MOOCs often neglect the end-user, and I am not here referring to the students. Too little attention has been directed at how employers will view future graduates.

Would employers rather take a Harvard MOOCs graduate or a graduate trained in person on campus at a local university lacking a world-renowned brand? Perhaps we will see a trend similar to the current preference for carefully produced local food over imported mass-produced foods from the mega-brands? And if employers prefer graduates trained at traditional universities, will not then the students also prefer traditional universities? After all, getting a job would seem to be the main motivation for most undergraduate students.

This brings attention to a crucially important point – in the end, whether MOOCs will succeed over the traditional university model in the training of undergraduates will be determined by the choices employers make. So a great deal of responsibility rests on the shoulders of the employers. Maybe it is time they had their say.