The Borders of E-learning

comein2Welcome to the second installment in my mini-series on the 2nd week’s material of E-learning and Digital Cultures! In my previous post I outlined my opinion on the pitfalls of using technology for technology’s sake and the dangers of focusing on the form instead of the content. The topic of this post will be the capabilities and limits of online education.

Judging from the articles in our course curriculum, the advantages and reach of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is still a rather contested topic. So what are the main collision points between the advocates and the opponents of online education? I would distinguish two topics in particular: the concerns about the financial side of online learning and the question of differences between learning online and “offline”.

Money matters

On the one hand commentators like Daniel (2002) and Shirky (2012) stress the role of  e-learning in reducing the costs of education. To quote Shirky, the story Udacity and its peers tell is: “It’s possible to educate a thousand people at a time, in a single class, for free”. The critics (see Noble 1998, Bady 2012) are keen reminders that these online education platforms are currently funded by venture capital firms whose “noble” goals should not be trusted: the only reason why MOOCs are for free is that they haven’t yet figured out the best way to make money from them.

Some of the critics, it seems, believe that education should not be run like a business, i.e., with the goal of making as much profit as possible. But is this a problem just with MOOCs? In many countries all around the world (and, prominently, the US) higher education has become commercialized decades ago. I know of universities where the monthly sum of student scholarships are based on how much money their faculty brings in via grants and research for the industry. Here’s the funny part about the implicit chain of argumentation: the more we pay, the better education we get – the MOOCs are for free and thus their quality should be questioned – BUT the possibility of having to pay for them one day is “bad” and will not improve the quality issues anyway.

What the discussants tend to forget is that there is a world outside the US. And although the majority of the course offers do come from US universities, just a brief glance at, for example, our course participant map will tell you that the students of these courses come from all over the world. Isn’t it a little shortsighted to discuss the  MOOCs by only looking at a fraction of the student population? It may be true that high-quality education costs a lot of money in the US but what about, let’s say, European countries where education is free or at least considerably cheaper? Also they use such online classes and not because, to put it in Bady’s terms, their demand for affordable quality education isn’t met.

Replacing the college experience?

A particular point made in the articles by Anderson (2012) and Carr (2012) is the comparability of online and real-life classes. Namely, can we really gain the same outcome from a MOOC, “sitting at home and eating potato chips” (Anderson) as from sitting in an Ivy League university class?  It is true that in e-learning the technology can be adapted to the individual student’s needs who can learn at their own pace (Carr) and Anderson’s article quotes an example of a course whose students felt more connected with their course-mates than during their time at college. But can such learning online really replace going to college? What about the other lessons like live discussions in class, lifelong friendships and all the other things that have to do with spontaneity and social intelligence?

While thinking about this, I accidentally came across Jeff Selingo’s article on LinkedIn “Why the College Campus Experience Still Matters“. Selingo outlines four points that are the strength of campus experience and cannot be achieved online:

  1. A maturing experience;
  2. Access to mentors;
  3. Experiential learning;
  4. Networking.

I believe he makes some really good points. Really, which 18-year old fresh from high school is knowledgeable and goal-orientated enough to replace a college curriculum with online classes? Furthermore, the current offer of online classes is rather small and, as their knowledge of the labor market is limited, they are likely have little if any idea on what knowledge and skills they actually need. Not to mention the fact that the entry requirements for a large proportion of positions in the labor market are still tied with educational qualifications, ones that can only be attained in the good old universities. Will learning become “unbundled from the pursuit of a degree”, as Bady claims? Maybe one day but that time hasn’t come just yet.

edcmoocBottom line, I believe that online learning in the form of MOOCs is no bigger threat to campus education than video was for radio, e-mail for snail mail, and (I’m pretty sure) e-books will be for the good old paper books. However, massive online courses can be a very successful niche product, perfect for those in the labor market who want to improve their knowledge in certain fields but don’t want to go back to school or for those who are already studying but want to take advantage of learning courses their home universities don’t offer. In other words, MOOCs have a much bigger role to play in lifelong learning than in tertiary education.

Next up in part three: the dichotomy between freedom and security. Stay tuned!

Image credits: joshfrench, Eleni Zazani (Creative Commons)

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