Education as it is today is doomed - burn the academy and MOOC it
Nov 1, 2013
Education disrupted: The rise of MOOCs challenges traditional institutions and offers hope for accessible and quality learning.
The emergence of low-quality private education that aims more at providing a degree than professional training is not a Brazilian exclusivity. This new industry also abounds in the United States. "Universities" that give degrees in various specialties through payment without student effort are frequent to the point of the FBI investigating the case (as recorded in this excellent podcast from the Freakonomics blog). It is an economic issue. There is a demand for education in a portion of the population that cannot afford the values of good colleges (in the US, the average cost of a degree is $100,000) and "cheaper" courses propose to meet the demand, but with a product of terrible quality. Digital tools have opened up an ocean of possibilities, which are already being taken advantage of by startups such as Coursera, Udemy, and EdX. But there is still a catch: to take the final step, i.e., to gain recognition from educational institutions of countries with good educational standards, online education is looking for a business model that works. The formatting of this model will leverage a distribution of knowledge that educational fiefdoms have never dreamed of. And it is not so far from happening.
The academic environment shares with traditional media the same terror of digital transformation. In an article published in the digital version of the Guardian, two academics warn that online education could lead to the death of education in the humanities, a prophecy also made for the future of journalism. Privileged members of established institutions have always predicted the end of times when they saw their domains threatened, and so far, the world has not ended. Therefore, it is pertinent to imagine that the entry of the digital tool into the world of education does not have the impact of a second Middle Ages in education nor will it end the ignorance of the planet.
What is already happening, especially in the US, is a kind of alliance against online education or MOOCs ("Massive Open Online Course"). Regulatory bodies for education try to do everything possible to discredit the courses, which in most cases (at least in the institutions mentioned above) are taught by leading figures from research giants like MIT, Stanford, and Yale. For example, it is argued that the percentage of students who complete the courses is about 20%, which would be very low, but in "physical" institutions, the same courses end with 15% or fewer students.
The fact is that mass distance education is still looking for business models that can make the initiative viable from a business perspective. Premium versions with extra (but not fundamental) tools, offers of validation that equate the titles to those obtained in traditional colleges, and alternative financing systems are some of the modalities.
If we were to base ourselves on the quality of research and teaching in journalism in Brazil (just because this is a blog that deals more with communication than other sciences), MOOCs would already be a better alternative than 90% of the courses. Without causing any controversy, the vast majority of institutions train professionals who pass just above semi-illiteracy. Part of the blame is on basic education, whose third world level has not been attacked by either the government or the opposition when it was in government, because education is not a topic that enters the political agenda. Quality courses involve training the teaching staff, demand a lot from students and cost public money, sacrifices that in practice, none of the three parties agrees to make.
Another part of the blame is on the private education industry, which creates student stables, with poorly prepared and poorly paid teachers, oriented to approve everyone, or students who will enter the next year may run out of vacancies. Any course offered by Coursera or EdX is better than all the options offered by any Brazilian college, except for a handful of them. And listening to a lecture like that of Daphne Koller at TED, the offer of MOOCs becomes even more exciting on a planet where the vast majority of the population cannot have access to education of any level.
It is difficult to imagine that traditional colleges end, although education funded by the State certainly needs to be urgently audited to account for society. Public universities tend to become hereditary captaincies whose political control has absolutely nothing to do with competence (in fact, competence is routinely treated as an enemy), especially in the humanities, where the assignment of value does not have the evaluation criteria as precise as in exact or biological sciences.
There is still a long way to go to adapt digital tools to optimize the possible results in online teaching, but there are three factors that play in favor. First, the digital provides tools to scale teaching to an unthinkable quantity that traditional teaching can never dream of; second, traditional teaching is not only getting more and more expensive, but it is also plummeting in quality as institutions try to create "offers" cheaper to attract new audiences and in the process, they end up becoming simple issuers of diplomas for illiterates or almost. The third, and most important, is the possibility that digital tools give to decentralize the process and rely on an offer of virtually infinite labor through crowdsourcing (a Yale professor can, for example, teach classes 2000 times larger than he would do in the college facilities).
The issue of research has not yet been attacked by digital, but it needs to be, urgently. The world's largest research centers work well, but vast amounts of public investment in research go down the drain through a corporate bureaucracy that not only produces research of dubious quality but discourages non-members of the academic community from collaborating, virtually creating ivory towers where research is an end in itself and does not reverberate at all in society, which should be the main recipient of its achievements.
Like everything else in the capitalist world, the structuring of a new teaching model like MOOCs depends on the development of a viable business model that does not yet exist, but should become clear in a very short time. The effects of this other revolution tend to be felt quickly in societies that have an acceptable level of literacy and enough freedom to do so, but not without effort: jealous academics, diploma shop entrepreneurs, and politicians who do not appreciate the intellectual increase of their voters will certainly be an obstacle. With some luck, surmountable.