MOOCs: The New “Education for Leisure”?

This post originally appeared on the Degreed blog.

What is the purpose of education? This is a question many are asking right now, particularly as the costs of higher education (and the student debt burden) rise and the employment rate, especially among recent college graduates, remains high. Liberal arts programs are increasingly being forced to justify their existence as the tide turns in favor of vocational programs, which prepare students for jobs and careers.

Turns out, this is not a new question. In an excellent article for JSTOR Daily, Livia Gershon explores a time, about a century ago, when a different idea about the purpose of education became popular: helping people make the most of their leisure time.

“Education for leisure” was the complete opposite of vocational education. Rather than preparing learners for careers, the goal of education for leisure was to enrich their spare time through good books, art appreciation, and the like. This was seen as essential as workdays and workweeks became shorter, leaving people with more time on their hands. Gershon quotes Althea A. Payne, who states that education was necessary to help working men, whose hours were being cut, to use their leisure “profitably.”

Gershon’s article traces the history of education for a purpose other than work and how the idea has declined over time. While reading it, it occurred to me that a new type of education for leisure is taking place, not in formal classrooms but in informal courses like MOOCs. Several surveys about why people take MOOCs have found that the most popular reason is intellectual curiosity, with improving job skills usually coming second or third.

Perhaps education for leisure isn’t gone; it has just changed. People do value intellectual pursuits that teach them how to spend their free time (why else would tens of thousands of people sign up for a course on modern and contemporary American poetry?), but in today’s economic climate they can’t justify the cost of getting that education via the traditional route. For those who fear that new trends toward competency-based and vocational education might spell the end of liberal arts, the fact that millions of learners around the world are seeking out these courses on their own should provide a glimmer of hope.

Educating the World: MOOCs for the Greater Good

A lot of discussions and debates about MOOCs focus on comparing them to traditional courses. That made sense at the start, as most MOOCs were just traditional courses put online and opened up to the general public.

But, MOOCs are changing—some courses are now being developed based on a MOOC-first philosophy, so it seems reasonable that we shift the discussion so that we start talking less about what MOOCs can and can’t do compared to traditional courses and more about what they can do just on their own.

One of the things that only courses that are massive and open and online can accomplish is to provide public courses for the greater good. One recent example of this has been the course Understanding the Ebola Virus and How You Can Avoid It, available on ALISON. A major complication in the fight to contain the current Ebola outbreak has been a lack of understanding of the disease and how it is transmitted. This ALISON course is specifically targeted toward individuals living in or near Ebola-affected regions as well as health workers striving to educate those communities. The course is available in English and in French, and about 20,000 learners have taken it so far. According to a recent article in Forbes, some people who have completed the course have gone on to teach others, such as a man in Ghana who held information sessions in churches.

Other MOOCs that are targeted toward the greater good including two on philanthropy: Coursera’s Giving 2.0: The MOOC and edX’s Giving with Purpose: How to Get the Most Out of Your Charitable Giving. There are also a host of other MOOCs that can provide much-needed education on current topics, like Coursera’s Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° Warmer World Must be Avoided and AIDS. These are important courses, not just for traditional students enrolled in higher education, but for everybody.

When we talk about MOOCs’ potential to educate the world, let’s not limit the discussion to providing low-cost higher education equivalents—these courses demonstrate that the concept of education for everybody can (and should) go far beyond that.

What About MOOCs is Disruptive: The Idea or the Technology?

There has been a shift in how people are talking about MOOCs. At first, the idea was that MOOCs would open up access to education for anyone who wanted or needed it—people in developing countries, people in developed countries who couldn’t afford the time or money for a traditional education, people who wanted to boost their job skills but didn’t necessarily need degrees, and so on.

Recently, however, higher education in particular seems to be talking much less about these larger goals and instead focusing on the technologies that MOOCs use.

For example, MOOCs have been making a big splash in the area of business education, which, with its high tuition, is something of a cash cow for traditional colleges and universities. With elite institutions like the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business putting their courses online, it looked for a while like traditional b-schools were in a whole heap of trouble.

Some of the early researchers behind this idea were Wharton’s Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich, who in a report earlier this year basically warned business professors that they had better start finding new ways to make themselves relevant or potentially face being replaced by MOOCs. In an article this week at Financial Times, however, they seem to take a slightly different tack. While they have always suggested that it isn’t the MOOC itself, but rather the technology behind chunked video content that threatens disruption, in the new article, Terwiesch and Ulrich discuss ways that technology can be used to “strengthen today’s business schools,” rather than replace them.

Similarly, in a recent article for Inside Higher Ed Kristen Eshleman of Davidson University notes that two of the most important reasons universities try MOOCs—expanding access to education and lowering costs—haven’t actually come to pass. She suggests instead that MOOCs can provide the greatest benefit on campuses through “improving educational outcomes, fostering innovation, and conducting learning research.”

So, the question arises: What aspect of MOOCs is really disruptive? Is it the idea of making education more widely available, or is it the technology behind the courses? This is something we need to think about carefully. Technology can be used in many ways, including to reinforce the status quo. But the idea that anyone with an Internet-connected device can get an education—that is truly revolutionary.

As we move toward the next phase of MOOCs, let’s not forget their greater promise: education for all.

MOOCs, Higher Ed, and Economies of Scale

One of the largest potential benefits, as well as one of the largest sticking points, of MOOCs is the ability for colleges and universities to save money, for example, by licensing rather than creating materials for standard courses, like Psych 101. This has caused a huge controversy, as faculty see MOOCs used this way as a threat to their jobs.

The idea of reducing costs and increasing efficiency is one that we not only accept, but expect from companies in most other industries, but it is seen as antithetical to the mission of higher education. As Keith Hampson wrote,

“Higher education has not put a great deal of effort into finding ways to reduce costs through scale. While other sectors seized the new economics of digital content storage and distribution, higher education has continued to produce and use digital instructional content locally; a digital cottage industry model, of sorts. For elite institutions or those aspiring to be elite, scale runs counter to one of the trappings of elite status: exclusivity. For others, the highly decentralized organization of institutions makes institution-wide scale improbable. Another factor is concern amongst decision-makers about the impact of sharing courses on labor market value and autonomy.”

But the main goal of colleges and universities shouldn’t be exclusivity—it should be education. And improbable doesn’t mean impossible—it just means some changes need to happen.

Scale will be required to meet the education demands of current and future students, especially as employers continue to demand more (and higher) credentials for even entry-level jobs. In 2009, University of Central Oklahoma economics professor Joseph T. Johnson proposed four ways higher ed could become more efficient:

1. Separate the research function from the teaching function.
2. Hire master’s degree-holders to teach most courses, and doctorate degree-holders to develop curriculum and teach advanced courses.
3. Teach standardized curricula. Since MOOCs hadn’t yet gained popularity in 2009, Johnson talks mostly about outsourcing course development to textbook publishers, but his points apply equally well to MOOCs.
4. Avoid giving faculty administrative responsibilities. Ed tech companies can play a role here.

With more non-traditional learners entering the ranks of students, and learning becoming something one needs to do continually throughout one’s entire career, economies of scale will soon no longer be optional. Embracing MOOCs, alternative credentials, and other new innovations will likely be the only way higher ed will be able to provide all of the education need to everyone who needs it.

More Awareness Needed to Bring About Change

The cost of college is one of the most pressing problems we are facing today. The value of college degrees in the job market has become inflated beyond all reasonable expectations, while at the same time the cost of those degrees has gotten so high that many students can no longer justify the debt load.

One major contributor to that cost is textbooks, whose prices continue to rise so quickly that many students are now choosing not to buy them, even with full knowledge that the decision will adversely affect their grades. Why, in this era when we can find the answer to any question imaginable simply by typing the question into Google, are textbooks still so expensive? This is a problem that several companies like OpenStax College, Flatworld Knowledge, and Boundless have been trying to solve by creating free or low-cost textbooks based on open educational resources (OER). These resources are available and their quality can match that of traditional textbooks (OpenStax textbooks even go through the peer review process), so why aren’t they being used more widely?

A new study by the Babson Survey Research Group suggests that the reason the resources aren’t being used is that faculty are not aware of them. In fact, as many as three-quarters of faculty respondents described themselves as “unaware on OER.” Those who are aware, however, describe the materials as being of high quality — as good as or superior to traditional textbooks.

Although the context is different, these results somewhat echo findings about MOOCs and online education. For example, in a recent study of employers, fewer than one-third had heard of MOOCs at all. Once they learned about the courses, they expressed positivity about the role of the courses in employee hiring, recruiting, and training. Research also shows that faculty who have experience with online education perceive it more positively than those who don’t.

While it is unlikely that many in the higher ed community haven’t even heard of MOOCs, what they’ve heard is key. Most have probably heard of Coursera and edX, and of the high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful experiments by Udacity. But what about the new things that are being tried, like remote labs and collaborative learning? Have they ever taught or taken a MOOC? What percentage of faculty would classify themselves as “unaware on MOOCs”?

Colleges and universities are struggling to provide the education students need at a price they can afford. OER, MOOCs, and other recent innovations can be effective tools for meeting current demands. But first, we need to get the word out.

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