Soapbox

August 18, 2013 11:46 pm

Moocs are a distraction from real business school reform

Dean Doug Gutherie

Massive open online courses or Moocs have proven to be a disruptive force in higher education in the United States, but not because they have revolutionised academia. Rather, their groundbreaking influence comes from the distraction they pose to real reform.

Moocs are not the wave of the future, nor are they transformational, as promised. They are a temporary diversion in the evolution of online learning that I believe will soon be replaced by a far more revolutionary force - the marriage of big data with online platforms to create a customised learning experience.

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Quite simply, customised or adaptive learning, not Moocs, is the future of higher education in the US and globally.

Not everyone is convinced, especially those who have invested heavily in the Mooc movement. But I believe the way forward is driven by a deep understanding of pedagogy and the interplay between technology, instructor and student. Big data, the immense numbers of data sets collected daily, will give educators the predictive tools they need to improve learning outcomes for individual students.

How will it work? Imagine two students who are taking a statistics course online. Like all learning, they bring their strengths and weaknesses to the enterprise. In traditional courses, the teaching proceeds at the pace of the instructor. Some students may learn quickly, others take to the subject more slowly. Neither has the optimum experience, however.

With customised learning, course segments are tailored to fit the needs of the student, so he or she can move at a pace that fits their understanding and learning style. If they need additional help on a subject, they access more detailed assignments that target their difficulties. If they absorb the lessons more swiftly, they can move on to another chapter, so to speak.

The collection, aggregation and application of learning data is a time-consuming process that requires academia to invest in and rethink the entire learning practice, but the time and expense will be borne out by the results.

For this reason, the world’s institutions of higher learning should be wary about joining the Mooc faction that so many colleges and universities have embraced in the US. It remains an unproven path to learning with high dropout rates, poor test scores and a frequently disgruntled faculty corps.

Instead, international universities should align with other institutions that are passionate about tailoring their courses to individuals, allowing students to take high-touch classes that are customised around individual needs and goals. By seeking partners, universities are able to broaden courses they offer and share costs and students.

Moocs have had their victories. Highly motivated students have made much of the opportunity to learn, and some Moocs have resulted in novel collaborations, such as the United Kingdom’s FutureLearn, which connects its courses to the archives of the British Library, British Council and the British Museum. Other Mooc hybrids provide sought-after speciality training such as the Codecademy, which teaches online participants software programming.

But any arguments for the continued use and growth of Moocs are offset by their failures as effective tools to teach wide numbers of students. They simply have not lived up to their promise.

Academia is undoubtedly in need of disruption, but it won’t come from streaming a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Introduction to Organic Chemistry lecture to 100,000 students around the globe. Scaling online courses for the masses creates a crowd; it does not constitute a classroom.

Customised learning will fundamentally alter higher education, as we know it. By bridging distances and creating access for individuals who have been abandoned by traditional educational institutions, customised learning promises what Moocs have not been able to deliver, a learning tool that comes closest to approximating the best of the classroom experience. No easy task, of course, but we are getting closer.

Doug Guthrie is dean of George Washington University School of Business

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