Will Online Learning Replace Traditional Higher Ed?

There are growing structural problems in higher education that have caused many within and outside the sector to question its future. But those who blame the growth of online courses for those ills are missing the point, according to Douglas Rushkoff writing on CNN.

Rushkoff explains that higher education is suffering from an identity crisis. While the cost of obtaining a college degree is growing, the system has an ever harder time making the case that a degree is worth the investment. The questions have become more pressing since the arrival of online education, which hopes to deliver the same kind of product as a traditional college does at a much lower price.

If nothing else, online ed has forced the traditional higher education establishment to ask itself the fundamental question: what exactly constitutes learning?

What is learning, really? And why does it matter unless, of course, it provides a workplace skill or a license to practice? Is the whole notion of a liberal arts education obsolete or perhaps an overpriced invitation to unemployment? The inability to answer these questions lies at the heart of universities’ failure to compete with new online educational offerings — the rapidly proliferating MOOCs — as well as the failure of most Web-based schools to provide a valid alternative to the traditional four-year college. Education is about more than acquiring skills.

That is not to say that online education will completely supplant the traditional classroom model, which has been the fear of many in the education establishment. Rushkoff writes that the trick is remembering that learning is best when it takes place in the “native environment.” Disciplines that reply in interaction with computers will do well when they transition online. The video lecture combined with online exercises is an excellent way to teach computer science and math, for example.

But it is not – and never will be – the best way to teach philosophy, he says. Nor will computers fully supplant human-led classes until they become more “humans” themselves. Teachers are trained to respond to the makeup of each individual class and tailor the way material is delivered to meet their diverse needs. MOOCs at the moment are strictly one-size-fits-all deal, which means they are poorly designed to help the outliers.

The good, living teacher probes the way students think and offers counterexamples that open pathways. With the benefit of a perfect memory of student’s past responses, a computer lesson should also be able to identify some of these patterns and offer up novel challenges at the right time. “How might Marx have responded to that suggestion, Joe?”

01 18, 2013
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