The seemingly unassailable rise of the MOOC – the Massive Open On-Line Course – has many universities worried. Offering access to millions of potential students, it seems like the solution to so many of the problems that beset higher education. Fees are low, or even non-existent; anyone can sign up; staff time is strictly limited as even grading is done by peers or automated multiple-choice questionnaires. In an era of ever-rising tuition fees and of concerns about the barriers that stop the less well-off from applying to good universities, the MOOC can seem like a panacea.
Certainly, it has attracted some big names. Harvard, MIT, and Stanford are all involved. In Britain, MOOCs of various sorts have been started by universities from Leeds to Leicester and from Sheffield to Strathclyde. Time magazine has talked about the MOOC as an ‘Ivy League for the Masses’, and scarcely a week goes by without the professional press running yet another enthusiastic article on the subject.
Little wonder, then, that some have started to see in the MOOC a harbinger of doom for the traditional university. In a recent piece, for instance, one journalist even speculated that ‘the bricks-and-mortar elite will end up on the wrong side of history’, replaced by this cheaper, easily accessible, apparently more democratic mode of learning. Politicians, too, have shown enormous enthusiasm for the MOOC as a plausible replacement for the expensive, elitist institutions that so many of their constituents dislike (and fear their children will be unable to attend).
It’s impossible not to applaud the ambition of widening participation in higher education, not just to hundreds or thousands, but to many millions. MOOCs, by their sheer scale, seem to offer far more than the traditional university extension or adult education programmes that have been running for the last century or so. The emphasis on technology that any on-line course inevitably brings with it is also intriguing. Indeed, it plays to all our fears and hopes about the future. A virtual university sounds like exactly the sort of thing we ought to be expecting – and so the MOOC is, in many minds, granted a horrible sort of inevitability. As it rises, it is reasoned, so the older idea of the university must fall.
Yet there are very good reasons for thinking this assumption not merely mistaken, but quite the reverse of the truth. It’s worth reiterating the point that critics always make, for instance, and drawing attention to the MOOCs’ quite remarkably low completion rates. Millions may sign up, but fewer than one in ten stay the course. And this is not merely because MOOCs do not produce a degree-level qualification. After all, the degree-awarding ‘E-University’ set up by the UK government in 2003 cost £50 million and attracted only 900 students. In the words of one expert, Michael Shattock, it was ‘perhaps the biggest financial white elephant in Britain’s higher education history’.
Even the success of the Open University, Britain’s pioneering attempt to provide an alternative route to higher education, tells a rather different story from the one that MOOC fans will want it to and MOOC-phobes may fear. Delivered on-line and on-air, its courses lead to degrees – one can even get a doctorate – and have attracted thousands of takers. Indeed, the OU is now Britain’s biggest university.
The truth is, however, that the OU is actually a rather traditional university; indeed, it is establishing a MOOC of its own for precisely that reason. It may use technology, but – in the end – it relies on a mixture of lectures (however delivered) and personal tutorials. Work is marked by a person, not a PC, and students meet real, live tutors for regular tutorials.
What this suggests is that people want and expect something rather more than a purely virtual, entirely electronic experience of university. They expect it to be a place. Indeed, the last two hundred years, which have seen the foundation, consolidation, and expansion of hundreds of new campuses in England alone, have only served to reinforce the sense that a university is somewhere as well as something. A disembodied, displaced university does not quite do the job.
Indeed, this emphasis on the university as a distinctive and distinctly different place has actually intensified in recent years. The number of students who wish to live in university accommodation has increased, with only 6% of prospective undergraduates surveyed last year wanting to stay at home and study. The other 94% expected and hoped to move away to a different place for their degrees. This, it should be recalled, is the internet generation; the natural consumers, one might have thought, of on-line offerings. It turns out that they are even more wedded to older ideas about the nature of the university than those who went before them.
Historians study the past, not future; we tend to make poor prophets. Perhaps improvements in technology will make the MOOCs more appealing in the end. Certainly, if tuition fees continue to rise, it’s difficult to see how the very poorest will be able to aspire to life at the very best universities. They may be forced to turn to a virtual university, however much they’d rather not.
But the idea of the university as a place, of university life as one lived out on campus, this seems so deeply-ingrained that it’s hard to see how even the most exciting MOOC can ever really challenge it. It seems more likely that the MOOC will prove to the loser in this battle, as students and their parents seek somewhere to study, just as they have for centuries.
Headline image: Victoria Building, University of Liverpool, by Ian-S. CC-BY-NC-2.0 via Flickr