Don't Fear the MOOC: Re-Invent the Learning Ecosystem

08/19/2013 03:47 pm ET | Updated Oct 19, 2013

There is a tsunami rising in higher education. In fact, it is finally starting to crest. The chatter around the need to improve education in the U.S. has been going on for decades, but it looks like something is finally going to happen. Why? Because the business model of higher education is truly under attack.

Surviving this attack will require the reinvention of education, so that today's students can achieve their true potential, and succeed in college...and in life. This re-invention will require 1) an improved business model that makes colleges more efficient and accessible, 2) more effective teaching methods that truly engage and inspire students, and 3) learning environments designed for the 21st century, not the 19th as many still appear today. We need to look at the learning experience more holistically if we are to improve learning outcomes, and treat pedagogy, technology, and learning spaces (both physical and virtual) as an "ecosystem."

I just returned from the 48th annual SCUP conference in San Diego. This is where college and university planners from around the world convene to discuss the latest trends and challenges in improving the higher education learning environment. Much of what they discuss relates to the buildings, classrooms, residence halls ... the physical spaces on campus. But the hottest topic by far was MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, referred to in keynote addresses from both Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and now a professor at UC Berkeley, and George Mahaffy, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. In fact I overheard so many hallway conversations about MOOC's that you might have thought this was the 5th annual International MOOC Conference (MOOC's hit the press big time when Sebastian Thrun at Stanford put his artificial intelligence course online for free in 2011, and had 165,000 students sign up globally). So why were so many deans, provosts, campus architects and master planners, faculty and instructional designers all talking about MOOCs? Simply put, there is a significant concern (fear?) amongst campus leaders, that MOOCs will dramatically disrupt the business model of higher education, put teachers out of work, or worse, put bricks and mortar colleges out of business. It probably will.

It is not surprising that there is a backlash. Consider a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Faculty Backlash Grows Against MOOCs." Self-preservation is a strong force. And education has clearly demonstrated a lot of inertia against change.

But the potential of MOOCs is just too compelling. They attack the cost and efficiency problems of traditional delivery models. The big question is, "How effective are they?" MOOCs are still in their infancy so data on evidence of success is still emerging. One study from MIT and Harvard indicates that a combination of online and face-to-face (F2F) learning is more effective than either alone. In the most recent issue of Research & Practice in Assessment, a piece entitled "Studying Learning in the Worldwide Classroom Research into edX's First MOOC" found that working with someone offline was the strongest indicator of academic success:

On average, with all other predictors being equal, a student who worked offline with someone else in the class or someone who had expertise in the subject would have a predicted score almost three points higher than someone working by him or herself. This is a noteworthy finding as it reflects what we know about on-campus instruction: that collaborating with another person, whether novice or expert, strengthens learning.

While this is only one study, it's consistent with other early research from institutions like Brigham Young University that shows "blended" learning has more advantages than a purely online or offline learning experience. "Blended learning" is by definition this combination of online and F2F. My belief is that blended learning is the future.

This brings me back to the concept of the learning "ecosystem." This new ecosystem requires new technologies, new pedagogies and new spaces to support it. Within it we have efficiency components (MOOCs, online delivery, technology), coupled to effectiveness components (both virtual and physical active and engaging pedagogies, interactive technologies, new blended physical spaces/"flipped" classrooms), to create a more efficient and effective learning model.

The bottom line: it's not an "either/or," but an "and" when it comes to MOOCs. Embracing them will help mend the business model in education, and hopefully improve effectiveness, not just efficiency. But MOOCs are not a silver bullet. They are but one arrow in the quiver of a new learning ecosystem that must include teachers as guides, pedagogies that engage, accessible and intuitive technologies that connect and amplify, and environments that support all of these new benefits to foster new behaviors and interactions that will lead to improved student success.