Beyond the MOOC — degree level study for a new age?

Interesting, if rather sketchy, piece in the New York Times on future ground-level transformations in degree level study. MOOCs, the author claims, have failed to transform the higher education landscape, not because they are not popular (they are, and looked at historically, spectacularly so), but because of the accreditation gap. By this is meant the meaningfulness of any study certification to employers. Taking a MOOC, or even twelve of them, is a hobby. Certification of the study of individual MOOCs does not evidence knowledge or skills, and certainly not a comprehensive competency in any subject. These latter features — standing for definite and guaranteed knowledge, skills and subject competency — remain the preserve of traditional degrees.

What is changing now is not just that some course offerings are upping the rigour of their certification process, but that series of courses or systems of certification are arising. Now, take twelve MOOCs from this series, and the certificate means something; collect ‘badges’ from various sources, and again this demonstrates something to an employer.

Now, this is directly analogous to standardised schemes of credit accumulation, such as CATS. The system in the United States is among the oldest and most well understood such scheme. A student can take 30 credits at the University of X, add 60 more from Y College, and then round it out with another 30 earned while working for Z Corp — and that is a degree. Those three institutions know this; employers know this. Does it work? Well, sort of. It is certainly easier to transfer between institutions than it was 50 years ago, but it is still not exactly common. (A degree itself remains much more portable: taking your BA from X to study for a MA at Y is very common indeed.) However, the relative rarity of intra-degree transfers likely has more to do with geography than some other form of intertia. Usually, one has to physically change residence to get from X to Y.

Online education changes this. Now, the problem is that Mozilla, Coursera or EdX are not recognised degree-granting brands. So, even if their systems for accumulating elements of online study are robust, it will take a long time before they serve the above purpose with respect to employers. So, there will remain a role for traditional education providers, as providers of course, but also as brands that carry recognised weight.

UPDATE: The President of Stanford University weighs in on this issue. His is what you might call a centralised or federalised vision of higher education, where the best providers (i.e. the best teachers, i.e. those at Stanford) provide digital content for other universities, with some local help. Well, duh: that’s what university-level text-books have been for a century, with later enhancements like video (pioneered by the OU) and dedicated web-sites. The real innovation would be finding a way to make this responsive to individual student needs and interests, a goal that Hennessey does not seem to realise cuts right against the centralised model.

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