Two years ago, in fall of 2012, the US higher education scene was subjected to strong external forces, some of which were asserting that the future might contain only 10 universities worldwide because massive open online courses (MOOCs) would offer free education making universities useless.
The Gardner company has popularized the chart below to describe a cycle of technology invention, application, and maturation. It notes that the invention of new technology often entails a vision that promises revolutionary advances. Such is often required to garner the resources necessary for initial development. Since almost all innovations fail to achieve the full vision, there is an inevitable “trough of disillusionment,” followed by the result of slower, more evidence-based assessment of how the new technology can be practically used (“the plateau of productivity”).
The wonderful thing about technology developments is that their cycle time is much quicker than universities usually achieve. As early as last year, the trough of disillusionment arose in MOOCs–development costs were higher than expected; the interested population worldwide was not found to the uneducated but those already having higher education degrees; the dropout rates were very high; and the percentage willing to pay for a certificate of completion tended to be low.
Now, the “slope of enlightenment” is in full blossom. We learned that universities in other countries are interested in using Georgetown MOOC material for their on-campus courses, assisted by local instructors. Licensing fees result. When the MOOC is modularized, modules can be used in on-campus courses, as Georgetown is now doing for the bioethics MOOC (used in PHIL 105) and the globalization MOOC. Thus, MOOCs can contribute to the core curriculum. Further, the staff skills built from launching MOOCs have given Georgetown instructors new facilities to improve on-campus courses.
Finally, we found that MOOCs fit the global mission of Georgetown. We recently received an email from a Muslim student living in Gaza, who was interested in taking the MOOC on Terrorism and Counterterrorism, but who was concerned that a Western instructor might present material in a biased manner. After edX assured the student that was not the case, he enrolled and later wrote: “I have begun the course and LOVE it! The titles of some of the units alarmed me… but once I saw how the subject is approached (by very gifted Prof. communicators/lecturers I saw that there is balance and intellectual rigour. I intend to continue and, Inshallah, get an Honor Cert! Thank you for your patience and attention.” Thus, the global reach of MOOCs is consistent with that of the Jesuits’ work at the margins of societies throughout the world.
The Gartner “plateau of productivity,” which, I believe, we are now just entering regarding online learning is an interesting contrast to the start of the movement. To the surprise of many, we’ve discovered that, to be effective, the new learning world must contain many of the accouterments of a modern university. There must be active guidance of a faculty member; there must be a tailoring of educational experience to the individual background of the student; and there must be active interchange and collaboration among students.
Many of these features can be technologically assisted; to achieve this, however, is far more difficult than slapping a set of PowerPoint slides into a video with a voice-over. It’s hard work to construct an effective online course that can be tailored to a diverse student population. Each step in learning must not only produce exposure to the given material but also anticipate every possible way the material can be misunderstood in order to use the online software to repair the misunderstanding. These are procedures talented instructors use, but only when prompted by seeing the misunderstanding exhibited. Much of this is enhanced with intense interaction between faculty and students.
Teaching and learning require motivation, effective content, cognitive engagement, social support, mentoring, and practical uses of the knowledge. MOOCs, their online learning tools, and their learning management systems will be important tools to improve the efficiency of the 21st century university. This isn’t how we started at the “peak of inflated expectations,” but we think the “plateau of productivity” will be a long-lasting one.