Disruption (or the lack thereof)

By Hugh Han Yang Lim. Hugh Han Yang lives in London, UK.

MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses. Coursera, Udacity, itunes U. They’re backed by some of the world’s most prestigious and respected universities, they’re available 24/7 and most importantly, they’re (generally) free. With worldwide increasing levels of online usage growth and ease of accessibility, the influence of the internet has undeniably disrupted many markets and overhauled how many people live their lives. Think Amazon for shopping and shoes, Email for sending post and messages, Skype for calls, Facebook for connecting with your friends and now, MOOCs for education?

I think not.

Disruption, in business terms, means the introduction of a new product, process or service that changes the existing status quo entirely. The iPhone disrupted the market and lead to Nokia’s unceremonious fall from mobile phone leadership grace. The PC disrupted the market and gave every household the computer power once reserved only for the business and technological elite, releasing the typewriter’s stranglehold on document production simultaneously. That’s disruption.

MOOCs? They have a niche. They fit in their own space among the other choices for education out there. But they do not disrupt.

They may be part of the future, but they are not the future itself.

If they were to be the future, then what first needs to change is not the method of delivering education, but the perception of the quality of said education in the first place. And that, would be a bigger disruptive event than the entry of MOOCs itself.

Unconvinced? Here’s why:

1. MOOCs aren’t as accessible as you think

1.1. It may be true that MOOCs are available to anyone on the internet with access to a laptop or even a smartphone. But as the world currently stands, this only rings true for much of the first world. In the third world where majority of the world’s population still live in actual destitution levels of poor, people are already struggling to eat as it is, much less afford personal entertainment gadgets, let alone the electricity to power them.

1.2. Even for those with the capability to access the internet, it takes only a little political will to limit the effects of the ‘knowledge revolution’ led by MOOCs. Look no further than the Great Firewall of China, should any MOOC dare to host course content or facilitate academic discussions deemed seditious by certain world governments, it does not take much effort to block it out completely. A minority may be able to curcumvent these technical barriers but the technological ignorant will not which defeats the future of MOOCs. Which leads to:

2. The content is usually much too difficult to learn from scratch

2.1. Bear in mind that these are generally college level courses which require years and years of prior knowledge and teaching, especially within the realms of mathematics, science and other technical fields.

2.2. To successfully learn what many of these courses have to offer, a student may need laboratories, personal teaching, experiential learning which, through a screen, is impossible to achieve. This greatly restricts what MOOCs can offer effectively to generally the most basic and introductory of subjects.

2.3. One could argue that the point of the MOOC is to give accessible introductions so as to inspire academic interest in students, of which if they would like to find out more, can complement what they learn online with enrollment into actual colleges that offer such courses. That is all well and good. But this also means that MOOCs alone are not the future of higher education.

3. Grading each other is meaningless

3.1. Part of many MOOCs is the component of peer assessment. Realistically speaking it would be impossible, especially in a MOOC for the course convenor to grade everyone’s work. Peer grading is thus the most practical and feasible solution to this problem. Except that it also presents huge problems of its own.

3.2. Some of these courses may have tens of thousands of participants, each grading each other’s work. But of these many people, how many of them actually take the course seriously? Some drop out, yes, but then we cannot discount others that would try to work their way around the system to achieve the grades they want. The possibility of a person not grading your work seriously is also very real.

4. Most people and employers still respect the college degree

4.1. Most young people today aim for colleges, universities and other institutes of higher education to pursue subjects they either have a passion for, think will help them attain a prestigious and financially rewarding career after, or for any other reason they can think.

4.2. Realistically speaking, the main reason why people go to college is so that they can attain a college degree, call themselves a graduate, and be eligible for the wealth of employment opportunities seemingly available only to this pool of candidates.

4.3. The college degree does not just tell employers that one has attained the minimum educational requirement needed for most professional jobs, but that one is intelligent enough to enter, and pass such a programme, and that one is able to manage a semi-adult life while doing so.

4.4. With the youth unemployment rate at unprecedented levels in the UK and much of the EU and many more applicants per place for most job positions, the easiest way for a recruitment manager to ‘screen through’ the stacks of CVs submitted daily is to require a college degree, or even a certain grade of college degree. MOOCs may offer the substance of higher education without the form (seeing as their certificates, if offered, have yet to gain any recognition amongst academics or employers). But without the form, under the current view on the value of a college degree anyone that takes a MOOC will largely see mere personal meaning.

5. The credibility of online learning is in doubt

5.1. With the difficulties of peer assessment, the lack of other teaching methods except for those confined to behind a screen and the lack of faith of the quality of education offered by MOOCs, it all leads to this final issue which prevents MOOCs from becoming the future of higher education: The lack of credibility.

5.2. Top universities around the world are backing and providing content for many MOOCs, but they can only do so by absorbing the cost of hosting such courses either on their own or through a sponsor. This model may be a new and innovative method of higher education, but it is in no way sustainable without having participants donate or pay a small fee for it eventually.

5.3. And even then, online learning at its worst, is not learnt at all, but a system of grading is gamed by cheaters, sloths and hackers that threaten the future of MOOCs itself.

MOOCs are at best a supplement, an introduction to many college courses, the supplier of knowledge that does not require anything further than a screen and an internet connection. They are a niche, and do have their own place in the realm of higher education. But to say that it is the future, well, as things currently stand, that is a bit of an overstatement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletter!