Going entirely online?

A major change in higher education over the past decade or two has been the erosion of the belief that there is just only one quality model of higher education. Until very recently everyone who mattered thought that the gold standard was set by universities such as Cambridge, Oxford and Harvard, and that institutions were good to the extent that they managed to create a learning experience that resembled the Oxbridge/Harvard model as far as resources would allow: intensive teaching in small groups on a well resourced campus, cutting edge research that prioritised ‘blue skies’ discovery.

The Oxbridge/Harvard model is in many people’s eyes probably still the gold standard, but then again even those universities have changed what they offer, or at least some of what they offer, quite considerably. And this week one of those that was always thought to base itself on the Oxbridge model, Trinity College Dublin (or whatever it is now called), announced that it would later this year offer its first ‘MOOC’ (‘massive open online course’), something it is doing just as a greater degree of scepticism regarding MOOCs is beginning to take hold in the higher education community.

Then again, TCD may be doing what students globally would want it to do. A student survey carried out recently on behalf of the Laureate Group of universities (a global network of institutions that focus on vocational courses, of which the University of Liverpool is a member) produced some interesting results. The students who took part on the whole predict (and, it appears, want) universities of the future to offer their courses online, for free, and in flexible settings without fixed times for classes or other formal engagements.

They may of course be right. But if they are, almost every assumption we have made until now about higher education will need to be revised. In particular, higher education would be individualised, with the removal by and large of the notion of a community of learning based on a campus experience. That has implications for pedagogy, for assessment and for student engagement; but it would also necessarily have a major impact on how academics interact and conduct their scholarship. If moreover the educational experience is to be completely ‘open’ – i.e. free – then that will create a framework in which quality and standards will be very hard to assure, in the absence of any obviously viable business model.

But if the students are right, one casualty would also be diversity in higher education. If everything goes online and high volume, then the capacity to develop institution-specific models with distinct missions becomes much more difficult, as content becomes increasingly driven by method.

I guess that my own perspective on this is that the higher education system should not just slip into some new learning model that has been made possible by technological advances, without engaging in a much greater assessment of what this would mean for the whole concept of a university. Of course we must welcome and harness technological innovation. But that does not mean that a particular use of it should be inevitable, bringing with it a whole sackful of unintended consequences.

A world in which students can expect online access and resources, an openness to lifelong learning at different stages of people’s lives and careers, and inclusiveness must be part of the future mix of higher education. There must be a considerable diversity of mission. But we must also ensure that the engagement of students and faculty with scholarship and inquiry  is not cast aside in a rush to adopt one particular model of educational provision.

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5 Comments on “Going entirely online?”

  1. no-name Says:

    Is it not telling that the newly announced courses are not full degree courses? The TCD offerings are a certificate and a diploma rather than anything more substantial.

    One might wonder how a massively online post-graduate thesis would be managed in such a context. Perhaps we can anticipate a shift from meticulous scholarship to Wikipedia curation. Or perhaps we can anticipate that this fad, too, will pass.

    Students may demand online courses, but is there any evidence at all that sustained commitment to them on the part of students exceeds student use of libraries? Is the attrition rate in such courses not enormous?

    • V.H Says:

      The attrition rate is a function of the lack of clear information and back-up.
      People don’t join courses to fail at them. And the more they fail and the more it becomes clear the providers are half-assing the product the quicker the industry will stifle the online courses.

  2. V.H Says:

    The Oxbridge/Harvard model would work if the providers everyplace else had ability to match their pay expectation.
    If OxBridge is the top surely pay should reflect this lowerdown.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    “Then again, TCD may be doing what students globally would want it to do”.

    I think that one could safely argue that we don’t know what students *globally* want, even after the students’ survey discussed here, in fact I would say that the interpretation of the data emerging from the survey is blatantly influenced by the mission of the ‘Laureate Group Universities’ which commissioned it in the first place.
    An interesting example is when we read that: “43% of Laureate students believe that the university of the future will provide content online for free” – is defined as a ‘plurality’ (and not a minority), whereas the fact that “52% of students believe that most courses will be offered at all times of the day or night” is presented as a ‘majority’.
    The Forbes article which analyses, or better, simply reflects the interpretation already presented on the Laureate University Group web site, goes as far as prophesying that: “The day of the Medieval Studies student may soon be over. Laureate students see a university of the future as one clearly focused on producing students who are prepared to excel in jobs that are needed by industry and society”.
    Besides the irony of any *Laureate* university dismissing ‘Medieval’ culture, (maybe such a group should adopt a brand name that better reflects their ideals?) what emerges is a vision of the university of the future as a bolt on to industry. This is a dystopian scenario which cannot be justified on the basis of technological advances, as it appears to be often the case. The university of the future will be one characterised by diversity of content and methodologies, and flexibility of study – on the latter see the recently published: Conditions of Flexibility http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/jun/10/flexible-study-future-for-universities

  4. Al Says:

    If we make one more step in the direction of the free access to the whole reservoir of the human knowledge, we will find ourselves in front of a worldwide information network, in which any piece of the existing ad hoc knowledge can be accessed. This would be not exactly the Internet as it is, but something very similar to it.

    The good news about it is that it does exist more or less in the same shape as the students from the TCL would like to see. Therefore, it helps them and leads them in the desirable direction.

    However, the bad news is that none (or almost none) such student could have become an expert in her/his field of knowledge, because there are at least two more circumstances of critical importance:

    1. A student needs some etalon, some standard to compare his/her own level with that of other people. It would be difficult yet possible to elaborate such an etalon in a very narrow sector of knowledge, but I am not too optimistic about the possibility of that for a much broader field of any academic discipline.

    2. In addition to the formal knowledge, which can be gained in the way of an auto-didacticism, there are lots of finer and less formal issues of the highest importance for an expert. Being so fine and so informal, they can hardly be transferred in any way other than the personal communication between a professor and a student.

    In other words, an open model like the MOOC is, indeed, very useful. It can improve and enhance the traditional internal study. But it cannot replace it.


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