\’Laptop U\’ misses the real story



Nathan Heller\’s terrific New Yorker article Laptop U has been making the rounds in our professional networks. By Tweet and e-mail, photocopy and blog post, many of us are spending some quality time with some of the good folks responsible for bringing higher education to scale.

Like most of the colleagues I have spoken to who have read Laptop U, my responses to the article on first read were positive. Heller is both an engaging writer and a terrific storyteller, and he approaches the whole MOOC phenomenon with an open mind and a refusal to draw simplistic conclusions. He clearly like the academics whom he profiles, and he gives the MOOC experimenters and MOOC doubters equal and positive weight in discussing the impact of open online classes on the changes and stresses faced by our colleges and universities.

The one problem with Laptop U is that in all of its 9,000 words the online and blended education world, really the higher ed world, that most of us spend our days fails to make any appearance.

The casual reader of Laptop U could be forgiven for thinking that prior to Coursera, and Udacity and EdX there existed a world of classrooms, professors, and little innovation. MOOCs, so the reasoning seems to go, changed everything.

There are a few problems with this argument.

First, as all of us know who have been working for years at the intersection of education and technology that blended and online learning have been a huge part of the higher ed story for at least the past 15 years.

MOOCs may get the ink, but it is the hard work of instructors collaborating with learning designers, librarians, media specialists, and educational technologists to create blended and online programs and courses that is the real story. The numbers of truly massively open online courses are truly minuscule compared to the number of courses that are either partially or fully taught online, or the numbers of face-to-face classes that are supplemented with internet and mobile technologies (blended learning).

A focus on MOOCs as the story of how higher education is changing, or how technology is changing higher ed, is like claiming that the story of college basketball and the 17,500 men who play the game is best understood by examining the 48 that were drafted by the NBA in 2012. Sure … those 48 make great stories … but you will learn precious little about the entire system of college basketball by narrowing the story to these few athletes or the programs that produce future NBA professionals.

The second problem with Laptop U is related to the first. If MOOCs are not the real story of how technology is changing higher education, if in fact the real story is the rise of blended and online learning, then the larger story about the impact of blended and online learning will go completely untold if MOOCs are the sole focus. For me, this is a story of blended and online learning providing opportunities to integrate learning theory, brain science, and the knowledge and experience of a range of educators into the course experience.

Anyone who works on blended or online courses understands that teaching has become a team sport. The best courses bring the subject matter expertise and passion of faculty with the pedagogical skills of trained learning designers and the information science abilities of librarians into a class.

The economics of blended and online courses, the fact that we can better utilize scarce high-fixed cost resources such as classrooms and labs while simultaneously increasing demand by enabling non-traditional students (such as full-time workers) to take our courses, results in a window to improve the quality of student learning. These improvements are realized by the addition of learning designers, librarians, and educational technologists to the teaching team – educators able to partner with our teaching faculty to create and run these blended and online courses.

Yes, a revolution in higher ed is occurring. This revolution, however, is part of a larger story of blended and online learning that has been developing over the past 15 years.

It will be the scaling and diffusion of what we have learned in developing our blended and online courses and programs that will drive improvements in quality in higher education at every level of the system.