By Jim Shimabukuro
In the wake of the recent onslaught of MOOCs in higher ed, the word “tsunami”* is often used to describe their potential impact. It evokes images of the 2004 Indian Ocean and 2011 Tohoku disasters, and fear and panic are widespread among faculty and administrators who cannot begin to fathom the threat to their ivory towers. To fully appreciate the analogy, however, we need to consider the speed of a tsunami. At 500 miles per hour, it can travel thousands of miles over open ocean in a matter of hours. But what’s truly sinister about this movement is that we usually don’t notice it until it hits our shores. By then, it’s too late. It’s difficult to detect. To our naked eye, the surface of the ocean may appear to be a bit darker and rougher, but it’s still relatively calm compared to the huge waves that we associate with tsunamis. Thus, we don’t see it coming unless we know what to look for.
As far as tsunamis go, the MOOCs that are lapping at our campus borders today are minuscule, perhaps a few inches high at most. But many are taking the threat seriously and believe the worst is yet to come. Is it? To answer this question, we need to look for signs. Not surprisingly, we turn to the most visible figures on our college campuses — administrators. As leaders, they should know. Right?
Well, no. That is, unless they’re in very close touch with teachers in the classroom and students. And this is especially true at the junctures where students, who are comfortable with the latest communications technology, and teachers, who are independently exploring and implementing strategies that are in sync with the open online learning environment, intersect.
The signs are easy to miss, like the subtle surface changes in the open ocean that indicate a massive tsunami is racing toward land, just below the surface, at the speed of a jet plane. For the full impact of MOOCs, what are the signs that we need to look out for?
We get a hint from an article by Laura Pasquini, “Online Learning: More Than Just a MOOC” (TechKNOW Tools, 28 July 2012). Pasquini is an education professional and a doctoral student in learning technologies at the University of North Texas. She turned to MOOCs to connect with “new concepts, research ideas, learning networks.” She says, “My intention when signing up for this type of free, online learning was to support my own professional development and expose myself to new learning concepts.”
Student interest in MOOCs is definitely an indicator, but what really caught my attention was this comment: “I reflected my MOOC experiences to my faculty advisor and he believed that participation in any one of these classes could be an added elective for my doctoral degree plan since this informal learning environment was contributing to my research design.”
There it is. So simple. So easy to miss. A teacher who is open to possibilities, who is looking at what is and what can be rather than what was. A teacher who is working with a new generation of students for whom “online” is not just an idea, option, or alternative but a reality. In this simple conversation and meeting of minds between faculty and student, we have an inkling of the tsunami that’s speeding to our shores.
The promise of MOOCs is their inclusion in the creative design of individual programs of study for degrees and certificates, and the force that will drive it is the most intimate, natural, and informal sort of dialogue that transpires between teacher and student. In this scenario, the teacher becomes guide, advisor, and facilitator; and the student, an active participant in the planning. Together, they will explore all the learning resources in the world to generate an individualized plan that meets the student’s goals and the college’s standards. When this happens, we’ll begin to realize that MOOCs, as a tsunami, have transformed rather than destroyed higher ed, and the changes will redefine the roles of students and teachers as well as the structure of courses, the sources of content, the process of learning, and the forms of degrees and certificates.
* Mike Boxall, “MOOCs: A Massive Opportunity for Higher Education, or Digital Hype?“, Guardian, 8 Aug. 2012. Laura McKenna, “The Big Idea That Can Revolutionize Higher Education: ‘MOOC,’” Atlantic, 11 May 2012. Tamar Lewin, “Universities Reshaping Education on the Web,” NY Times, 17 July 2012.
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