We are at a significant crossroads in higher education, in the liberal arts especially. A staggering economy for graduates combined with public outcry about high tuition and student loans is all bringing the value of a liberal arts education into question: a perfect storm. What’s most disturbing is a lingering doubtful perception about the return on investment made manifest by many media sources, occasionally influencing elected officials to poke fun at the arts and humanities. While many lament the advent of MOOCs, online learning has been around for nearly two decades. It’s yesterday’s news. But as Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, has elegantly written, the liberal arts DO matter now more than ever. So the current promulgation and growing abundance of freely available content is a powerful incentive and opportunity to re-visit and re-invigorate traditional entry-level curricula in new fruitful directions. History 101 can shed the first 4 weeks of materials, mostly review content that’s easily flipped, and develop new, higher quality activities in class.
Beyond the hype, at the core of MOOCs, especially connectivist MOOCs, is a genuine community sharing of open resources, an extension of the historical mission of 20th century public libraries with print publications, to connect citizens with electronic access to assets of knowledge. The real value of open online learning is that it has solved the access issue for knowledge-thirsty netizens around the world. There’s a subtle efficiency at play here. What’s to come? Motivated self-directed learners will find ways to imbibe introductory level course materials that will push faculty to redesign richer learning goals in first year seminars. These future students will be there, and we want to attract them. It’s an exciting time for Ed Ttech folks, especially those of us just getting started in earnest with blended learning efforts, to revisit why we used technology in the first place, namely to assist and augment sound instructional design. Open online courses will not destabilize the foundation of higher education. It’s natural to be fearful at first, and it’s even healthy. The natural instinct of self-preservation brings out the best in everyone. But as we let go of this panic, there is much to reflect and build on. As George Siemens points out in a recent interview:
MOOCs are not replacement models. They don’t replace the existing university systems. They augment it and help those universities become more relevant in the digital space. We’ve known in online and distance learning for 20 years or more that students who are at risk, you can’t just give them access. There have to be support systems in place that help those students to succeed.
Not to fear, the ominous specter of online learning, free or otherwise, will not impact the tremendous value of personalized, meaningful relationships between faculty expert guides and students in our classrooms. The abundance of open materials reveals that content is no longer king; relationships and networked connections between faculty and students matter much, much more. As Harold Jarche shared on Twitter:
— Harold Jarche (@hjarche) February 18, 2014
Relationships cannot be automated; drones and droids won’t even come close. What’s certain, some schools are going to close; but as history will show, institutions that collaborate around the sharing of knowledge and resources with an eye toward the distribution of course redesign efforts have much to gain.