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(HT file)

Opinion | Online learning and the challenge for universities

Universities will have to embrace the advent of online learning to ensure their sustainability isn’t in question

In the fall of 2011, when two professors at Stanford University shared a taped version of their popular computer science course online, little did they realize that they were heralding a revolutionary new medium of learning, the Massive Online Open Course, or the MOOC, as it has come to be known. More than 120,000 students from across the world registered for their course and within 12 months, MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Udacity, and edX came into existence.

MOOCs are often free pre-recorded courses that are streamed online and are available to hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world. There are thousands of MOOCs available from dozens of platforms taught by world famous experts and novices. It’s a free market and anyone can offer a course and anyone can take them. They offer the flexibility of learning on demand. Students can learn whenever it is convenient to them. They use high-quality videos, embedded software, quizzes and polls to deliver a highly engaging and interactive learning experience.

Pundits predicted that MOOCs would rapidly replace brick-and-mortar schools and universities. Educational publishers across the world fretted that MOOCs would replace text books and e-books, and scurried to add video and interactivity to their digital content. Today, the largest MOOC platform has more than 34 million students and offers over 2,400 courses, including those presented by professors from the best universities.

However, MOOCs have under-delivered on their initial promise as a disruptive medium. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of universities at the hands of MOOCs has been greatly exaggerated. This is largely on account of three reasons. First, universities offer students a holistic developmental experience that goes far beyond what MOOCs can provide. They enable deep interactions with faculty and peers, provide exposure to research and industry, develop broad perspectives and intuition, and prepare young students for life in the real world. Second, while MOOCs’ instructional value is high, their economic value is still questionable. Simply completing a MOOC does not translate into better job opportunities. Third, MOOCs have their limitations as well. It is impossible for them to recreate the camaraderie and friendship that traditional universities excel at. It is also hard to replicate successful courses where feedback from the instructor and peers to the student needs to be interactive and immediate. Personal one-on-one attention just does not work well online.

MOOCs can be employed effectively in institutional contexts, either by universities to augment their instructional design and distance learning programmes, or by corporates as a training tool for employees. In the former setting, MOOCs are evolving to be extremely complementary to the university experience. Students watch videos online and take quizzes at home. They then come to class, in-person or to virtual live classrooms, to discuss the finer nuances of the material being covered. This melding of online and offline learning is referred to as blended learning. Blended learning also enables a professor resident at a university in one part of the world to effectively offer a course to students at a university in another part of the world with the help of on-site teaching assistants.

Further, a student can today earn a university degree entirely online at a fraction of the cost of a traditional degree. Many universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, Georgia Tech and Imperial College London, partner with MOOC platforms to offer entirely online degrees in carefully chosen disciplines, largely in business and computer science, as an enhancement to their distance learning programmes.

MOOCs have also made lifelong learning a reality. Many older students cannot afford the luxury of being full-time students. These students have embraced online learning in large numbers.

It’s complicated, but fun, to speculate on the future of MOOCs and universities. Perhaps universities will unbundle their offerings further. Third parties might emerge to finance the education of students, conduct exams and certify students, create degrees based on courses completed at different MOOCs, place students in jobs, complement MOOCs with live teaching assistants, and offer research opportunities.

MOOCs can provide much-needed competition to universities, which then would have to adapt or perish. They promise to simultaneously lower the cost of education, democratize access to it, improve the quality of instruction, give students flexibility and choice, bring education to millions of people who are unable to attend universities, and free education from the clutches of overzealous regulators. The better universities are recognizing the potential of MOOCs by embracing them rather than fighting them, and by using them to establish a first-mover advantage. Much like newspapers struggled to find a sustainable business model in the era of free information, many universities are struggling with their own sustainability in face of the free education that MOOCs champion. Universities will have to strive harder to create more value through complementary services and endeavour to capture a fair share of this value.

The possibilities are endless and cannot be overstated.

Kapil Viswanathan and V.G. Narayanan are vice-chairman of Krea University and professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, respectively

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