While science fiction is not entirely fiction, and much of what great writers such as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov and others predicted has come true, the case of online education is not so simple. In this interview a few years ago, Asimov predicted that self-directed learning will soon be the norm, citing Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCS) as the future of education. I would argue that this is not the case. The good old university system, with its brick and mortar infrastructure, will still remain.
That being said, I am actually registered in two courses on a website, which is part of the “Massive Open Online Courses,” (MOOC) system, so-called because they are free and online, and offered by some of the best-known universities in the world. With Stanford University, Duke university and others joining in, a classroom of 90,000 people is not unheard of. With this scale, and a free education and certification at the end of the process, does this mean the end of traditional university as we know it?
The answer is unclear, due to the current strengths of the university and the current weaknesses of online classes.
Firstly, the university system as we know it today is very old — more than 1,00 years old, with Al-Azhar University dating back to 988 A.D. Common sense dictates that if something has survived so long, it is for a good reason, and it is unlikely to be discarded so fast, especially with such a complex institution as the university.
Secondly, the learning model that online courses offer is not amenable to learning for all levels of students. Further, the quality of interaction and learning is suspect. While each one of us learns differently, the general notion of learning — by critically reflecting, asking questions and discussing and debating with others — does not really exist online as it does in a real life classroom setting. This gives the traditional system an edge, that is not present in the online model.
In defense of MOOCS, Asimov says, "Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you. Everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class. And everyone is different. For some it goes too fast, for some too slow, for some in the wrong direction.” While this cannot be discounted, the attention that each student gets in a classroom cannot be matched in an online model.
Still, online education is not yet recognized in the same way as "regular" education. The credibility of a degree from Phoenix University is not the same as that from a regular university, many would argue. It will take years, perhaps, for the MOOCS to gain as much credibility as a regular university.
It cannot be denied that the world of education is changing. The way that all of us are getting information, knowledge and ideas is increasingly shifting to an online base. This is a result of the online, information revolution, which is in some ways global (barring those remote places which don’t have internet access).
No matter whether we believe in them or not, MOOCS are here to stay. Will the market shake up their model and remove them from the scene, like any other start-up, or will they evolve into more stable forms? We may not know for sure, but what we do know is that there are thousands and thousands of students signing up for these courses, and that is a fact we should not ignore when debating about their success or failure.