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Comment: Online learning shaking up the world of education

Twenty years from now, many colleges and universities will be closed, their classrooms deserted and their students learning at home. These are the predictions of many post-secondary commentators these days.

Twenty years from now, many colleges and universities will be closed, their classrooms deserted and their students learning at home. These are the predictions of many post-secondary commentators these days. What is it that has changed so drastically? Is it that students are more demanding, faculty less committed, budgets too tight? No, none of these (I hope). It is all because of MOOCs.

MOOCs are going to topple our ivory towers, say the pundits. MOOCs are “massive open online courses,” and they are about to do to universities and colleges what iTunes did to the music industry. It’s called disruptive innovation, and it can be a thrilling but challenging ride for all concerned.

MOOCs have a number of advantages as the logical extensions of online learning. They are open (free of bothersome tuition fees) and massive (thousands of students can be enrolled in one course). MOOCs allow people to sample university learning in a non-threatening environment.

Invented in Canada in 2008 by colleagues at Athabasca University, the National Research Council and the University of Manitoba (and christened by Dave Cormier at the University of P.E.I.), the idea has captivated both creators and users. MOOC courses are expanding rapidly as universities such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford supply the content. In Canada, the University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia have signed agreements with Coursera, a MOOC supplier and a site which has more than two million students.

There is no question that education can flourish on a virtual campus as well as an ivy-covered one. We at Royal Roads University know that better than most, since we give our students (from 60 countries) a blended learning experience both online and on-campus. We were early adopters of online learning and have been developing courses in this environment since 1995.

The “flipped classroom” is one of our instructional techniques. The simple idea here is that students come to class not to take notes but to discuss material they have read beforehand. That way, the traditional lecturer role changes from content expert to discussion leader by developing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills (among others) in the students.

Unfortunately, MOOCs face a few challenges before they can truly transform education. MOOCs offer a scalable way of distributing basic content all over the world — not a bad thing. But the quality varies, and many are just videos of short lectures combined with online quizzes. This is fine if you want to dabble in quantum theory or Shakespeare in your spare time. The best MOOCs (including some of the early Canadian ones) are based more around collaboration and less around content and thereby designed to be more effective for educational use.

In addition, the quality of students’ work is difficult to verify on such a large scale. Students who complete the assignments — some estimates state as little as 10 per cent finish, depending on the course — can receive a certificate from instructors saying they have participated. This is a long way from granting university credit toward a degree.

MOOCs can play an important role in giving prospective students a taste of higher education and the confidence to pursue their goals. Good-quality MOOCs also have a role to play in our traditional classrooms.

But at this point, MOOCs are simply more content in an already crowded content world. Admittedly, they will evolve and undoubtedly produce excellent content, but they have some distance to go before they replace the collaborative, team-based learning overseen by expert guidance that is the hallmark of our university.

The business model is still rather mystifying because the courses are free, but then that’s the story for many technology start-ups.

Many MOOC questions still need answers. Will these courses become a loss-leader for sign-up and enrolment in degree programs at the participating universities? Perhaps. Will consolidators accredit MOOCs and turn them into degrees? Maybe. Will companies pay a recruitment fee to get the names of the top-scoring students? They already are.

The disruptive ride is just beginning. In the meantime, hold off on the wrecking balls.


Steve Grundy is vice-president and provost of Royal Roads University.

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