Are Online Courses For The Masses The Future Of Higher Education?

Last Friday, the University of Alberta hosted a speech by German educator Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity. His company is one of a growing number promoting “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs.

Udacity proposes to democratize education and aspires to make a profit doing it.

One hears a lot these days about the revolutionary impact the Internet is going to have on higher education. The premise is that universities are institutions devoted to the generation and circulation of information, so that — like the newspaper industry, the recording industry and the book publishing industry before them — they are in crisis when confronted with a technology that can do everything they have done with much less, and much cheaper, infrastructure.

It is important to listen to what experts like Thrun think the Internet means for the future of universities. But it is also worth paying attention to what Internet experts have to say about the Internet itself.

One of the most interesting contemporary analysts of social media is Clay Shirky. His wonderful and surprising books Here Comes Everybody (2008) and Cognitive Surplus (2010) argue that the Internet will, like the printing press did before it, transform existing institutions by clarifying which of their functions fulfil real human wants and which are incidental.

The bad news for the newspaper industry, the recording industry and the book publishing industry is that what people want from those institutions is content: news, music, and stories.

These things have only been connected by historical accident to what the industries built around that content provide: daily newspapers full of advertising inserts and coupons; physical CDs with plastic cases, cover art and liner notes; bound paper books with jacket art and blurbs. There will still be some desire for those things, but less than in the days when people couldn’t easily get news, music and stories without them.

The Internet has also revealed whole universes of hitherto undreamt of human desire. Not for pornography, about which we already had some faint clue, but instead for things like cat pictures with funny captions, amateur encyclopedias and connections to communities of discussion on everything from Zen to the art of motorcycle maintenance.

The amount of unpaid time people are not only willing but eager to devote to these pursuits led Shirky to declare: “the Internet runs on love.”
It’s not much of a business model. But it is extremely educational. What are its lessons for higher education?

In his talk, Thrun spoke movingly and persuasively of people’s desire for accessible, high-quality educational content. When he made an artificial intelligence course he taught at Stanford open-access, 160,000 students from around the world signed up.

This only tells us, though, something we already knew. The global appetite for high-quality, free Internet content is enormous. But what are the consequences for universities? Do people want universities to generate information for its own sake? If so, one “Centre for Finding Out Stuff About Science and Engineering” and another for “Finding Out Stuff about Society and the Humanities” should do the trick more cheaply than the current global framework of research universities.

Currently, each university provides a home to a few members of disciplines that are global and that are constantly collectively engaged in discussing (usually via argument) which kinds of information are interesting and worth pursuing, and how these kinds of information make sense together. What is precious about universities is not information generation but the special kind of information sorting and analysis that is research.

Do people want universities to circulate information for its own sake? If so, the online provision of massive course offerings should do the trick more cheaply than the current global framework of research universities. In fact, one can already watch professors lecture on YouTube, one can watch TED talks, one can read Wikipedia. There are already a lot of ways to contribute and to access information, for free.

But universities aren’t just “information circulating” institutions. They are also evaluating and credentialing institutions. This requires a measure of close attention from many professors and a commitment from students that cannot be falsified — something that’s all too easy in online courses, where a paid substitute can take a dozen digital classes simultaneously from a remote location.

What is precious about universities is not information distribution, but the complex kind of back-and-forth interaction that constitutes real teaching. Professors and students interacting in real ways are not the book jacket or the CD case for this. They are integral to it.

When spinning visions of the future, it is wise to consult a variety of gurus. The premise of companies like Udacity is that in the future, massive open online courses are going to be at the centre of higher education while research universities like the U of A are going to be incidental to it.

Other readings of the Internet tea leaves are possible, including one in which massive open online courses will clarify just how indispensable research universities like the U of A are to higher education and to global society.

Kathleen Lowrey is an associate professor in the U of A’s department of anthropology.


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