In 1995, author and astrophysicist Clifford Stoll wrote a prophetic piece in Newsweek about the future of the Internet, emphatically casting aside all claims that people might one day engage in e-commerce, read newspapers online, participate in virtual meetings, or telecommute.
"What's missing from this electronic wonderland?" He asked.
His answer: Human contact.
Yet nearly 20 years later, Stoll's skeptic disregard of the revolutionary force of online technologies has, of course, proven grossly miscalculated. When a status quo is threatened by an emerging technology, it's common to be sentimental about the benefits of the traditional model. Now in 2013, we face a new disrupter: The massive open online course, or MOOC.
Benefits of the New Model
"What people are reporting in MOOCs is just incredible," says James G. Mazoue, director of online programs and educational outreach at Wayne State University, who is currently enrolled in a MOOC through the University of Edinburgh. "They are getting perspectives that they would have otherwise never had. It's incredibly liberating, the expanding horizons that MOOCs offer. You aren't getting that from land-based education models to the same degree."
Indeed, massive open courses can transcend often very provincial, geographically isolated learning experiences, which in a traditional classroom, Mazoue says, are typically composed of students of very similar demographics.
MOOCs also challenge a standard university model that is struggling with ballooning tuition, decreased public funding, and an often lecture-based model that doesn't adequately address multiple learning styles. While the idea that MOOCs will "democratize" global education may be overstated—64 percent of people under the age of 25 and 66 percent of people over 25 worldwide were not yet using the Internet, according to estimates in 2011 from the International Telecommunication Union—billions of people are now able to take a course through an elite university while remaining in their own regions.
Resistance and Fear
Currently, MOOCs bypass traditional faculty roles, which naturally alarms faculty, says George L. Mehaffy, vice president for academic leadership and change at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).
"Faculty is not resistant to change," he argues. "They're caught in an old, legacy structure that won't let them do things differently."
The key is to figure out new institutional structures and operations which are inviting to faculty, he says.
"I like to quote Burke Smith [founder of online course provider StraighterLine], who said, ‘Quit thinking about courses and start thinking about experiences.'"
Mehaffy added that higher education institutions will have to consider its niche, or what it uniquely does best, and focus on learning outcomes. Mazoue agrees, and predicts that the emergence of the learning sciences―that is, studying the way learners learn—will be a big trend within MOOCs evolution.
"One of the myths about MOOCs is that they're a fast way to make money," he says. "It's this narrative that goes all the way back to the ‘Silicon Snake Oil' idea, that there's a corporate conspiracy that's all about making a profit. It's a false narrative. I think we're going to see MIT, Harvard, and the others studying how students are learning, and collect that information, until we see a gradual transformation of [these] learning environments toward higher-quality and more individual instruction."
Challenges and Risks
Yet success stories of some MOOCs cannot be representative of them all. As Kris Olds, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes in Global Higher Ed, a blog he co-edits, not all course designers hail from elite universities with the resources of those wealthy, highly ranked institutions behind them.
"Online teaching can scale more easily than in-person teaching, but the creation of the institutional space and support infrastructure to produce a series of quality MOOCs takes time, attention, resources, TLC, and so on," he writes. "The production process also has to be preceded by the creation of a formal or informal governance pathway, as well as an assessment if your university has the technological and organizational capabilities to coordinate a legitimate MOOCs initiative."
Around the globe, and especially in developing regions, this raises the question of what will happen to local, smaller scale universities that might not have the funding or resources to keep up.
Moreover, the risk of focusing too heavily on enrollment numbers and global influence can detract from quality. "Maximizing enrollment numbers and global reach should not be the core objective or foundation of a platform ‘business model,'" Olds said, adding, "We are educators, after all."
Further Implications for Global Higher Education
Most MOOC providers dominating the market are in the United States, but that's changing with the emergence of such platforms as the United Kingdom's FutureLearn. FutureLearn currently only offers courses from U.K. universities, which has caused some to wonder whether MOOCs platforms will bring forth a new form of global competition in international higher education.
Still, it's not easy for all institutions to compete with name recognition and rankings. Elizabeth Redden, of Inside Higher Ed, reports that while MOOC platform provider Hong Kong Virtual University (HKVU) has been "successful at attracting students from within the region," it has encountered difficulty marketing abroad. Many of HKVU's participating universities have additionally partnered with Coursera, a U.S.-based company, to reach more audiences.
Institutions of higher education in the United States and abroad face a new phase in the delivery and exchange of knowledge and information. Having a knee-jerk reaction to these changes would be unwise, said Olds. While there are advantages to traditional education models—including valuable facilities and face-to-face interaction—there are likewise numerous benefits to the MOOC model.
For leaders like Mehaffy, this new age brings "excitement and anxiety." For the Clifford Stolls of the world, however, there's reason to feel protective. International education is most effective when it revolves around human connection and exchange. Though the way in which MOOCs might influence this sphere is not yet known, current models for student mobility and intercultural teaching and learning will certainly be affected.
Emily Ann Buckler is editorial project manager at NAFSA. She is taking her first MOOC through the University of Toronto, and uses YouTube for beginner piano lessons. She can be reached at emilyb[at]nafsa.org.