MOOCs Aren’t Perfect, But Neither Are Offline Courses

Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky

With all the MOOC madness in higher education, I often wonder and worry about putting education online. I mean, the California State Universities, the world’s largest university system, are essentially experimenting (with public funds!) with the MOOC format by putting a number of their courses online — for credit, at a reduced tuition rate — through the startup Udacity.

The “academic” in me recoils a bit at this in fear that making courses from brick-and-mortar institutions available online to the masses cheapens the college experience somewhat. As a graduate from a brick-and-mortar institution, to me the word “college” evokes physical memories of campus, the classrooms, and the faces of my peers and professors. A beautiful little mecca where inquiring minds can gather and engage in intellectually stimulating conversations, a time in one’s life meant for mental growth and exploration — that’s what “the college experience” should be.

And it’s when I find myself immersed in this line of thinking that I’m truly grateful for articles such as Clay Shirky’s “Your Massively Open Offline College Is Broken,” a serious reality check for Institution Idealists who believe that online courses are somehow corrupting their much-revered idea of an institution of higher education being a physical place. In his article, Shirky, writer and adjunct NYU professor, argues that now is most definitely the time to experiment with alternatives for higher education:

Bustillos sees institutions like San Jose State experimenting with credit for online courses from startups like Udacity, and asks: “are we willing to jeopardize the education of young people (at the cost of millions or billions in public funds) on a bet like that?”

To which my reply is: “Depends. How well do you think things are going now?”

Bustillos’ answers seem to be that in the world of higher education, things are going fine, mostly, and that the parts that aren’t going fine can largely be fixed with tax dollars. (Because if there’s one group you’d pin your hopes for an American renaissance on, it would be state legislators.) I have a different answer: School is broken and everyone knows it.

Shirky makes the important point that all these alternatives to the traditional higher education system are coming at a time when tuition rates are higher than ever (72 percent increase in the past decade while

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the market value of a bachelor’s has fallen by 15 percent) and students are desperate for better options. “MOOCs are a lightning strike on a rotten tree,” writes Shirky. “Most stories have focused on the lightning, on MOOCs as the flashy new thing. I want to talk about the tree.”

So Shirky talks about the tree, bringing up the point that the focus on college students is often on the 18 to 22-year-olds, which is not an accurate representation of the college student demographic. The majority of college students are now above the age of 23, so your typical college graduate is likely at a big commuter school, working while he or she is taking night classes, and and sometimes supporting a family while he or she earns that degree. Our current higher education system, Shirky says, is not one that supports the average college student.

In his article, Shirky challenges many of the hesitations educators — particularly those in higher ed — have about online education. As a writer who’s also an academic, Shirky has an interesting perspective on the current state of education. He takes an honest look at the institution and calls it like he sees it:

For all our good will, college in the U.S. has gotten worse for nearly everyone who relies on us. For some students—millions of them—the institutions in which they enroll are more reliable producers of debt than education. This has happened on our watch.

Check out the full text of the article at The Awl. It’s well worth the read. Then share your thoughts with us in the comments below, or via Twitter to @Technapex or @ce_doyle.

Caity Doyle

Caity is a former English teacher and the editor of Technapex. Caity is extremely passionate about education and is TriplePoint PR's resident edtech expert. When not researching education policy and edtech, she enjoys running along the Bay Trail while blaring the Boss through her headphones, watching the Giants beat the Dodgers, and meeting fellow Italians in North Beach.

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About Caity Doyle

Caity is a former English teacher and the editor of Technapex. Caity is extremely passionate about education and is TriplePoint PR's resident edtech expert. When not researching education policy and edtech, she enjoys running along the Bay Trail while blaring the Boss through her headphones, watching the Giants beat the Dodgers, and meeting fellow Italians in North Beach.