The American writer H. L. Mencken once said that there is always a well-known solution to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong. MOOCs look neat, are plausible and … too many get it wrong! MOOCs captured the imagination of venture capitalists, academics and university administrators and this is a rare thing for higher education. The problem is that – despite exuberant enthusiasm surrounding them – MOOCs remain marked by many unanswered questions and still fail to clarify how they will deal with many crucial pedagogical and managerial aspects.
The Economist and The New York Times, academics and various experts in education proclaimed "the year of the MOOC" and that the end of the campus as we know it is certain. The excitement around MOOCs became so extreme that anyone asking for the old kind of evidence-based arguments was pinpointed as an outdated conservative fighting against the Enlightenment. MOOCs promised to solve inequity and barriers to access, increasing costs and explosive student debt, quality assurance, sustainability, critical thinking, creativity and innovation. The magic of clicks and "innovation" was evident to all who identified with the progressive pack.
When Anant Agarwal, the President of edX (the MOOC consortium launched by Harvard and MIT) went to The Colbert Report to discuss his initiative, Stephen Colbert used his subversive humour to ask some questions that went unobserved by many university presidents and managers:
"I don't understand" – Colbert said – "You're in the knowledge business in a university… Let's say I had a shoe store, OK, and then I hired you to work at my shoe store. And you said, 'Hey, I've got a great idea! Let's give the shoes away for free'… I would fire you and then probably throw shoes at your head."
A detail ignored for a while has become clear: We already have the solution of freely available courses with videos and pdf files, web-links and books on Amazon through websites and platforms such as iTunes U (or various Learning Management Systems used by universities) for a long time.
Open Universities across the world have an already long tradition of offering free (access) courses or non-credit courses with a small fee. The simple addition of forums and discussion groups cannot be seriously taken as the most important innovation that can dramatically change higher education. If we claim this, then we have to accept that we all reached a point of very little imagination and depth for our solutions.
So, if a MOOC is 'open', but not free, what is it?
The enthusiasm for the silver bullet went too often too far. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, recently underlined something that should be clear to any university administrator:
"I'm not a person who thinks that people will be able to just go online and get a complete education without the guidance of the teacher. That sort of simplistic model shouldn't be our framework."
Students cannot be engaged by simple conversions of boring lectures into online videos that are even more boring, affected by clunky and poorly designed technological solutions and rigid platforms for discussions and "forums".
The value of MOOCs
Students are starting to question (and most probably refuse to enrol in the future) in lectures with 500+ students crowded in various halls and large amphitheatres. MOOC-like provision is an easy replacement for this bizarre form of academic model of making profits.
At the same time, MOOCs are now evolving much less against the "brick and mortar" university and much more in line with the needs of students and institutions of higher education. The main reason is that the only way these platforms can make a profit in the future is to work in consonance with credit providers that are accepted and (still) trusted by employers.
It is evident that mastering critical thinking, collaboration, presentation skills and genuine empathy require human connection, interaction and practice, and are best acquired in person, not only online. This is why we like to drink our coffee with friends – whenever possible – on a coffee shop, not on Skype, with a cheaper cup brewed at home. It is also evident that online medium offers the possibility of connectivity, exploration and the use of well built imaginative capabilities. The balanced use of online and on campus solutions stay as a key for the future of higher education.
Software, MOOCs, apps, learning management systems and other online solutions are just tools that can be used to answer these challenges. They are important tools, but not solutions by themselves to achieve the difficult task of building inventive, educated, resourceful, and imaginative new generations.
Stefan Popenici is a Senior Lecturer at Melbourne University in Australia and is the Associate Director of Simon Fraser University's Imaginative Education Research Group. A version of this column appeared on his blog popenici.com.