We’ve been treated to a rash of stories about how new technological models for higher education raise questions about the viability of the traditional campus. After all, why invest in an elaborate physical plant when virtual education can effectively expand your reach exponentially?
This is of particular interest for global education and multinational universities, as the expense and difficulty of establishing foreign educational outposts may make virtual options seem even more attractive. At this point, though, it’s hard to see how massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, can be the silver bullet to developing globally engaged students or institutions.
To be clear and to set aside a straw-man argument, we don’t believe that MOOC’s were established with global engagement in mind. These entities are mostly about access.
However, they have become popular in overseas markets (for example, 61.5 percent of Coursera’s enrollments come from outside the United States). This development has led some to view MOOC’s as a possible alternative to other forms of global expansion, and to question the relevance of colleges’ establishing physical presences overseas.
We’ve been thinking more about those issues after last week’s Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development meeting, on the theme “Attaining and Sustaining Mass Higher Education,” where debates centered on the issues of standardization vs. diversification. We think that framing is useful in examining the differences between MOOC’s and foreign educational outposts.
Few would argue against the potential of MOOC’s to open up higher education to the masses. More than a million people have enrolled in the courses (though their completion rate remains quite low). Being available online and free makes MOOC’s accessible to folks all over the world, including in remote regions lacking capacity for high-quality university education. As long as one has Internet service and a device to access it, MOOC’s provide the missing content (though certifying the learning is still problematic).
But, let’s be clear what this means: thousands of students across the world taking the same course, with the same content, from the same instructor. And that is the problem. MOOC’s are now at the forefront of the McDonaldization of higher education.
In an era when higher education is making significant advances in becoming global and helping to build educational capacity within developing nations, MOOC’s play the center against the periphery. They strengthen the ivory towers by enabling a few elite institutions to broadcast their star courses to the masses from the comfort of their protected perches.
Yes, the model expands access to many who cannot or do not want to pay for the regular costs, and that certainly has its benefits. But MOOC’s do little to foster engagement or cross-cultural understanding, and in most cases don’t offer students a credential. By promoting centralized knowledge production, MOOC’s limit the spillover effects that can help build the academic infrastructure of developing nations.
By reducing the need or opportunity for students or institutions to cross borders, MOOC’s pose potential barriers to fostering global awareness and providing diverse educational experiences. This is not to argue that promoting study-abroad experiences or expanding an institution’s global physical footprint into overseas markets are the only ways to internationalize an institution. However, one of the differences between such activities and MOOC’s is that studying abroad and operating international campuses promote global engagement.
What do we mean by global engagement? We’ve talked about universities as multinational entities, and how it means more than just operating in several countries. There is a two-way aspect to global engagement, such that there is both an exchange of people and an immersion in different cultural experiences.
A multinational university can’t simply be a broadcasting service to recipients in other countries; it must engage with and learn from other cultures. The “massive” element of MOOC’s and most other technological initiatives has a homogenizing effect that makes this sort of engagement unlikely.
We know better than to reject the possibility of future advances that will enhance engagement. For example, the State University of New York’s Center for Collaborative Online International Learning, the COIL Center, is designed to facilitate collaborative courses among faculty members and students in multiple countries. Technological innovations tend to change things more than expected in the long run, even as short-term advances rarely match up to predictions.
We also acknowledge the potential of MOOC’s to transform higher education’s organizational structures, with a chance of breaking the monopoly held by traditional colleges and universities over courses and credits.
Branch campuses and other types of foreign educational outposts seek to replicate a certain curriculum in an overseas environment; however, being locally embedded enhances the opportunity for there to be local engagement, local knowledge spillover, and an overall improvement in a nation’s educational sector. They tend to produce research that is locally relevant and students that are locally employable.
MOOC’s may provide access to a world-class education, but the product is prepackaged and standardized. And, because it is readily available, it risks diminishing both the diversification of the higher-education sector and the advancement of globally engaged students and institutions.