My Turn: Mad about MOOCs? We’re missing the point

Last modified: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
The rapid rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is an exciting development for higher education, drawing Harvard, M.I.T., Stanford, and other top schools into ventures touted as revolutionizing the way we learn, what we pay for it, and who can participate.

Here’s what that dramatic narrative fails to acknowledge: The revolution is already here – and it’s not MOOCs. It’s the blended learning that for more than a decade has mixed online instruction and residential coursework.

This revolution, which has a superficial resemblance to MOOCs, has been expanding steadily and quietly over the past 10 years, which may explain why the fanfare has gone instead to MOOCs, whose overnight growth has drawn attention normally reserved for 21-year-old pitching phenoms.

MOOCs get the ink – Harvard’s and M.I.T.’s investment of $30 million each into the edX platform and the venture money flowing into Stanford spinoffs Coursera and Udacity have legitimized efforts to expand the reach and scale of online learning – but the real story is this growth of blended learning and the team approach to teaching that is necessary to create these new courses. Across higher ed, faculty are collaborating with learning designers, librarians, media specialists and educational technologists to create blended courses that take advantage of the intimacy and flexibility of face-to-face learning, while leveraging the productivity and convenience of online and mobile learning.

MOOCs share a common set of technologies, such as learning management platforms and faculty presentation capture and video sharing tools, with blended courses. But that is largely where the similarities end.

The instructional design community that has been applying new learning technologies for the last decade understands that our approach has benefited from the positive attention heaped onto MOOCs, but we are acutely aware that this attention is largely misplaced.

I have experienced this irony firsthand in my role as part of a team that helped to start a small, blended graduate program at Dartmouth. Our Master of Health Care Delivery Science program is a joint initiative between Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and The Dartmouth Institute in our Geisel School of Medicine. The program hopes to leverage what the online-learning community knows about teaching from over a decade of experience. These lessons have very little to do with technology and more to do with a better understanding of how people learn and the commitment to apply technology as a lever to improve learning.

Four campus visits

What does this look like in practice? There are about 90 students in our program, all of whom are mid-career health-care professionals and rising leaders in the industry. Nearly all of the learning is done online. Students come to campus four times, for a total of six weeks, during the 18-month program for intensive in-class interaction.

Our understanding of successful online learning hinges on the strength of the relationships between our faculty and students, and the degree to which our classes form a cohesive and personal learning community. The residential portion of the program strengthens the cohesion. Our goal is to create an intimate learning experience and to catalyze the co-creation of knowledge between learner and faculty.

An effective course is not only about the transmission of knowledge from the faculty’s brain to the brains of the student. Rather, we understand that authentic learning requires students to actively engage with the material, to challenge their own and their colleagues’ ideas, and to build on their existing knowledge and experiences.

What the Master of Health Care Delivery Science is trying to do at Dartmouth, and what my colleagues elsewhere in the blended learning community have been working toward for more than a decade, is to find ways to overcome the constraints of space and time in teaching and learning. We have been refining both our understanding of how people learn and the technology platforms that allow learning from a distance. The combination is enabling us to offer blended courses to students who would otherwise be excluded from a post-secondary education.

Our model is the seminar model, built on faculty-student interaction. Relationships like these, unlike other services on the internet, do not scale. Our model bears no resemblance to the MOOC model – a class of tens of thousands who never have face-to-face interactions with their professors or fellow students.

Cost savings

Blended learning, unlike MOOCs, has the potential to alter the economics of post-secondary education. Courses that take advantage of online technologies to deliver content and encourage collaboration can then better use scarce classroom and lab space. By moving some instruction online (or increasingly into mobile learning), existing classrooms and labs can be more intensively used by more classes. The only method to increase productivity in a high fixed-cost environment, such as a campus with our expensive academic buildings, is increased throughput.

Blended learning will allow us to grow the number of students we can serve without incurring the long-term capital costs of construction, a savings that has the potential to be plowed into expanding access and lowering tuition costs.

MOOCs, whatever their potential and promise, do not offer a business model that will enable either savings or new revenue for higher education.

We should celebrate the growth of MOOCs for the potential they represent, but also be careful to distinguish them from the larger learning and technology story that has been playing out for years in higher education. The growth of high-quality, blended degree programs at selective institutions is the real online learning story that many in the media – awestruck by the overnight success story of MOOCs – have missed. This is the real revolution.

(Joshua Kim is director of learning and technology for Dartmouth College’s Masters in Health Care Delivery Science program.)