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MOOCs & Higher Education’s Two Solitudes

I grew up in Quebec – Canada’s predominantly French-language province. But my neighbourhood was inhabited almost entirely by English speaking families. And my clan – with it’s UK-origins – fit right in.

The sharp divide between the French and English in Quebec has faded somewhat since I moved away. But at the time, the divide felt “natural” as these sorts of things often do when we know of no other way.twosolitudes

Author Hugh McLennan depicted the divide between Canada’s french and english in his novel Two Solitudes, and although his novel is more than half a century old, the phrase “two solitudes” remains in use. In fact, Canadians will use it occasionally to describe any two groups – not just English and French-Canadians – who somehow manage to live in close proximity, but have little understanding of each other.

Two Solitudes came to mind recently when speaking with a friend about MOOCs. For many people in and around higher education, the emergence of MOOCs caused them to ask if this was finally the start of a “revolution in higher education“; a “disruptive innovation” and a “game changer“.

There were others, though, for whom the celebratory and revolutionary language used to describe MOOCs seemed unjustified, even perplexing. I’m referring here not to people that simply dismiss online education in any form; those that see any move away from the classroom as a step in the wrong direction. Rather, I’m referring to those that have been working in and on behalf of digital education (often for more than a decade), and believe strongly in its potential. This group of higher ed professionals – which I’ll call the technorati – asked why people were getting so excited about MOOCs; despite the fact that it reinforced the traditional lecture format – a practice advocates of online higher ed have been trying to quell for years; despite the fact that it inappropriately equates the high-rank of the institutions involved (a by-product of research capacity and exclusivity) with instructional quality; despite the fact that the ultimate value of MOOCs is highly dependent on institutions bestowing on it credit worthiness – a development that would hurt these same institutions by reducing their exclusivity and revenues; and despite the fact that technologically speaking, MOOCs could have been achieved fifteen years ago, had the institutions had interest in sharing their wares. And so on.

Those that questioned MOOCs remained largely silent at first; voicing their objections only in hallways and amongst those with similar viewpoints. But the tide seems to have turned. Maybe it was the incessant articles about MOOCS, or the lack of a sustainable business model, or because the President of the US was now pushing MOOCs, but the people that questioned the hyper-ventilating response to MOOCs seem to have recently felt safe to come out from behind their desks and to express their thoughts publicly.

recent blog post from University Ventures, for example, made fun of Sebastien Thrun’s (CEO of Udacity) recent proclamation that he’s now found the “magic formula” for online education: student support. University Ventures asks if maybe, just maybe, this isn’t really all that new. “The magic formula sounds uncannily like the online degree programs offered by thousands of accredited higher education institutions, in which over 3M American students are currently enrolled.” Oh, snap!!

My friend Dr. Tony Bates has led, consulted for and written (14 books) about digital higher education since the late 1980s. Earlier this summer, he was asked to speak at MIT’s LINC conference. His presentation asked (as politely as possible) how is it that the people behind MOOCs – many of whom were in attendance – managed to avoid 20 years of research into how students learn online. Ouch.

Solitudes, Encore Une Fois

How could these two camps possibly manage to exist side-by-side in in higher education?

I suspect part of the answer lies in the fact that the technorati within digital higher education overestimated the extent to which people were actually paying attention to what they thought was some of the more important issues in the history of higher ed. Yes, most everyone is conscious that digital higher education is a “thing”. But the more nuanced conversations amongst the technorati about what was working and what wasn’t, weren’t as widely familiar as the technorati probably assumed. The debates carried out amongst the technorati at conferences, in journals, and in hallways around the world were probably less enthralling to others than they imagined. While the field of online education declared itself mainstream a half-decade ago, most professionals in higher education were dutifully focussed on their increasingly narrow specializations – like everyone else.

If there’s a lesson from this disconnect, it’s that we need to be conscious of the different worlds each of us occupy in higher education. The pressure on academics to specialize is increasing. And while data is scarce, it seems that more institutions are centralizing online education units – rather than distributing responsibility for these programs and systems in each academic department. Consequently, we may find ourselves increasingly operating within our respective solitudes.

See Also . . .

Technology, Transparency and MOOCs

MOOCs: The Prestige Factor

Online Education: Overnight Disruptive Innovation That’s Been Around for Twenty Years (via Student Force)

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Dr. Keith Hampson is Managing Director, Client Innovations at Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon University venture born out of CMU’s long history in cognitive science, human-computer interaction, and software engineering. In addition to adaptive “intelligent” courseware and learning analytics, we offer a range of consulting and professional development services for colleges and universities that increase the quality of their digital programs.
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