Following up on his 2005 book “The World Is Flat”, columnist Thomas Friedman has spent a lot of time and energy tracking the progress of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their impact on traditional colleges and universities.
When Friedman recently visited Coursera, founded by two computer scientists from Stanford, it had 2.4 million students taking 214 courses from 33 universities. Udacity and edX, a nonprofit created by Harvard and M.I.T., also offer MOOCs. Although the number of students completing the final exams appears to be low, the courses can be rewarding for both the students and the professors teaching them.
Besides the wide availability of high-speed internet access, the major force pushing the change is the world’s demand for competence more than credentials. “There will be less interest in how you achieved the competency – in an online course, at a four-year college or in a company-administered class – and more demand to prove that you mastered the competency”, Friedman says. This means that higher education must move from a model of “time served” to a model of “stuff learned”.
He sees some universities where students are directed to study the basic material online at their own pace, then go to the classroom to apply the knowledge through discussions with a professor, lab experiments or other hands-on exercises.
The online courses can come from anywhere. Friedman cites a Harvard professor who reports that “Harvard Business School doesn’t teach entry-level accounting anymore, because there is a professor out a Brigham Young University whose online accounting course ‘is just so good’ that Harvard students use that instead.” As Friedman puts it, “when outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over… The world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor.”
Friedman quotes M.I.T. president L. Rafael Reif: “I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. There is a new world unfolding,” said Reif, “and everyone will have to adapt.”
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