Online learning glitch: MOOC flaws will be hard to resolve

Free online courses from prestigious universities have caused a stir, but they won’t shut universities down. Online education image from

Last weekend, The Guardian ran an article entitled “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?” Had I been the one writing that article, it would have been precisely two letters long:

“N O”

Superficial opinion abounds, and nobody ever got famous for suggesting things were pretty much going to stay the same, but although the online education revolution will bring about fairly major changes in the way universities do things, they are not an existential threat.

I don’t want to criticise the Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs. I’ve enrolled in one from Udacity, and it was very, very good, particularly in terms of how the learning material was presented.

But there are still a few issues that the MOOCs haven’t solved, and I’m not certain they’re going to be able to do so without significantly revising their model.

Flawed thinking

For a start, many of the disciplines universities offer have a practical as well as a theoretical component. Medicine, chemistry, fine art, engineering – all of these subjects require infrastructure, machinery or equipment that is beyond the means of an individual student.

In those fields, there will always need to be some sort of bricks and mortar institution to provide access and instruction. I invite anyone who thinks otherwise to go under the knife of a surgeon who learnt everything they know from YouTube videos.

The other major problem the MOOCs haven’t solved is assessment. They work very well for subjects like maths, which have objectively right and wrong answers, and can therefore be pretty easily marked by computers. It remains to be seen whether the model can be extended to softer subject areas, like, say, politics, philosophy or the social sciences.

Proven knowledge

The problems with assessment point to a larger problem: accreditation. A university education has never just been about acquiring knowledge. It’s about being able to prove it.

Employers look to the type of degree, the reputation of the institution that issued it and the marks a student received as shorthand for that student’s ability. The MOOCs need to figure out how to ascertain that the work they’re marking was done by the student whose name is on the test.

Coursera have announced that they will begin accrediting, using webcams to ensure students don’t cheat. But to cover the costs of that, they intend to start charging fees, which is a significant change to their business model.

There is also the fact that Princeton, Stanford and many of the other universities involved in the MOOCs have spent decades building up the cachet of the courses they offer. Ultimately, I’m sceptical that the administrations of those universities would be willing to dilute their premium brands by offering a degree to anyone with a broadband connection.

Personal learning

Ultimately, purely online courses are unlikely to supplant real-world universities because sporadic online interaction will never be able to match the deep, rich experience of attending university in person.

That may be a slightly unfashionable view in this day and age, where we look for everything to be quantified in terms of return on investment (ROI), but there is something special about one’s time in higher education, something of which the time spent in the lecture or the lab or the tutorial is only a part.

For the majority of students, university is the bridge between secondary school and working life. It’s where they learn the soft skills that employers tell us are just as important as the hard skills.

The on-campus experience deepens your learning through your interaction with your peer group – people who are getting across the same concepts as you at the same time can in many respects be your best teachers.

An online study group simply cannot provide the same depth of interaction. University is where you build your professional peer group and networks that will support you throughout the rest of your career.

The next steps

What I suspect is that we will see the two models – the online and the on campus – converging.

For the reasons I’ve just outlined, around accreditation and assessment, it’s likely that, in order to compete in the same spaces as physical universities, MOOCs will need to take on some of their characteristics.

Likewise, MOOC-like characteristics could improve the quality of pedagogy at traditional universities. It may be that the model doesn’t change much for those courses that require the use of expensive equipment or specialised facilities, but that, say, introductory courses of the type that traditionally had five hundred students crammed into a lecture theatre are taught almost entirely online.

That would free up teaching resources to improve the quality of the on-campus component. With the wide availability of online materials, the lecturer’s role may come to resemble that of a curator, selecting the best online material for each concept the course covers.

Students stand to benefit, because the onus is on universities to make sure the on-campus experience is worth paying for. So called “blended learning” gives students the best of both worlds.

The face-to-face time becomes much more valuable, because it can be used to explore the ideas in greater depth and test the learning. While the basic learning material can be accessed before coming to class.

Data mining

The other part of the model is learning analytics. Through regular diagnostic testing, the student will be able to see how well they’re across the material, how they’re tracking against the rest of the class, and what mark they’re on track for.

Similar information will also be available to the instructor: they’ll know what proportion of the class has read a particular piece of preparatory material.

From the results of the diagnostic testing, they’ll be able to tell which concepts the students have mastered and which they’re struggling with. Then they’ll be able to tailor their classes accordingly.

Of course, there is not one blended learning model, and each university will respond in its own way to develop its own strengths in its own circumstances.

But it is clear that universities are bound to adapt in some way to the possibilities that digital learning represents.