This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on December 5, 2013.
Now that MOOCs’ disappointing early performance has put a damper on prophecies of academia’s wholesale collapse, where will these behemoths find their place in the landscape of higher ed? Well-financed by investors, relatively popular among administrators, and attractive to millions of course registrants (though getting those registrants to finish is another thing), MOOCs are not likely to face extinction. Their future is probably somewhere between adapting to a niche clientele and rebounding to capture part of the original demographic they targeted at their genesis two years ago. That middle ground is breaking up into three distinct predictions:
1. MOOCs work best at conveying technical information to diligent, mature adults, so they’ll become advanced technical schools and outsourced employee training. That’s the conclusion of Walter Russell Mead, and it’s the direction Sebastian Thrun is taking Udacity, after reckoning that MOOCs had “failed” as rivals to brick and mortar BA programs. The new MOOC-ish master’s degree program at Georgia Tech is an example: AT&T is a major funder of the Georgia Tech initiative, planning to send its employees through the program and to hire additional high-performing program graduates. Forbes reports that a growing number of businesses are using authorizing MOOC versions of their training courses. Others are launching MOOCs to educate their constituents. Maybe MOOCs don’t inspire rapt fascination with Tennyson the way a wizened literature prof might, but they don’t have to. Who said job training was interesting anyways?
2. MOOCs needn’t stick to computer science and math, but they oughtn’t aspire to Harvard-level humanities, either. MOOCs are the newest means of popularizing intellectual culture for a middle-class audience. As University of Michigan professor Jonathan Freedman writes in “MOOCs: Usefully Middlebrow,” we already had reader’s digest versions of books, game shows quizzing our history knowledge, and book clubs for the well-read but untrained literature enthusiasts. Now we have MOOCs. They disseminate content in respectable, if watered-down, versions of their counterpart college courses. Sure, it’s not college, but it’s not comic books, either.
3. MOOCs should focus on the humanities, their techie origins notwithstanding. They’re one piece of a larger rebellion against the reign of STEM fields, where job prospects are shrinking, and for the humanities, where human creativity and other long-term job skills develop and blossom. The liberal arts are a lot harder to teach to big Internet classes, and student interest in taking and actually finishing is pretty low (“You can lead a horse to water…” Edward Luce reminds us at the Financial Times). But MOOCs don’t have to be a magic bullet. If they can save students some money and pry at least some of them away from a false financial fascination with science BAs, they’ll be counted a success.
A MOOC is a medium, not an entity, and it can be used to convey anything from presidential biographies to personal finance techniques. Any of these three, or others, is still possible.