William Whyte, professor of social and architectural history at St John’s College Oxford, assures us that in the “battle” of MOOCs vs traditional campus-based universities, “The MOOC will prove to [be] the loser.”1 He parades the usual suspects for their demise: low completion rates and absence of credits and degrees.
He tosses Britain’s E-University and Open University in with MOOCs for what amounts to a clean sweep of online programs. Two birds with one stone, as it were. He cites E-University as a costly failure and Open University as “actually a rather traditional university.” Convenient, but what these institutions have in common with MOOCs is baffling.
He bolsters his prediction with survey results: “Only 6% of prospective undergraduates surveyed last year [want] to stay at home and study. The other 94% expected and hoped to move away to a different place for their degrees.”
Whyte declares traditional universities the winner because “people want and expect something rather more than a purely virtual, entirely electronic experience of university. They expect it to be a place.”
Strong reassurance, indeed, for those who see MOOCs as “a horrible sort of inevitability.” Traditional universities have not only withstood the MOOC challenge but actually emerged stronger.
Lost in Whyte’s argument, however, is the fact that MOOCs are a disruptive force that’s not aimed at traditional universities. The battle is moot, and the professor is fighting a strawman. The so-called challenger isn’t even in the same ring. MOOCs appeal to a completely different population that’s predominantly nontraditional, “in this case, working adults for whom traditional higher education [is] inconvenient.”2
In other words, traditional students continuing to flock to traditional universities and nontraditional students continuing to flock to MOOCs are two separate events and not an either-or issue. Both can and do coexist without threatening the other — at least for the time being.
As we speak, MOOC developers are rapidly analyzing and manipulating the variables that impact retention, and the result is improved completion rates. Furthermore, developers and institutions are exploring and discovering countless imaginative ways to strengthen the certification process for MOOC credits.
In fact, the amount of creative energy that’s swirling within online and MOOC efforts in higher education is staggering. For example, online course developers are beginning to break out of the CMS-LMS silos that have stunted their growth and to experiment with connectivist-inspired uses for social networking media.3 The resulting mix is beginning to look increasingly MOOCish by the day.
Finally, the fact that the vast majority of students expect “to move away to a different place for their degrees” doesn’t necessarily mean, as Whyte assumes, that they favor traditional F2F over online, including MOOC, courses. To the contrary, numerous studies indicate that a growing percentage of traditional students are flocking to online and MOOC courses.
The very real possibility is that going away for college may not necessarily mean going away to college. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine a time when students will congregate in college communities throughout the world that are designed specifically for their social, recreational, and online-mediated academic needs. These will be less like college campuses than far-flung wired college dorms in exotic and romantic parts of the world.
1 “Does the MOOC Spell the End for Universities?“, Oxford University Press Blog, 12 Feb. 2015.
3 Justin Reich, “Techniques for Unleashing Student Work from Learning Management Systems,” Mindshift, 13 Feb. 2015.