Opinion: Education for Society 3.0 Reply

Last week I attended the 3rd Annual Research Conference at the Maastricht School of management. The theme of this year’s conference was Revolutions in education: New opportunities for development. There were a number of interesting keynotes and paper presentations and I want to put together some thoughts following our discussions.

The “revolutions in education” that the topic refers to, was argued to be driven by the development of the so-called data society. In an very interesting keynote Mr Ronald van der Hoff, the President of Seats2Meet, made the case that the higher education system is still training people for the industrial society, using an industrial-type process. Today, a digital and fabrication revolution is leading the way to society 3.0, the data society. He view is that in the future the distance between organisations and their stakeholders will be smaller and they will be more equal partners in the creation of value. He sees this today in the growth of knowledge sharing, coworking, crowd buying and collaborative consumption.

In higher education, this revolution takes the form of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and their ideal of facilitating individualised learning pathways. Prof Amber Dayley-Hebert of Park University argued that knowledge creation takes place in learning networks. Today’s learners are mobile and the learning is problem-, project- and design-based, as well as life-long. The use of serious gaming and badges in education are elements of the development of individualised learning pathways.

All this sounds quite futuristic, but has very real implications for even South African academics, today. So what did I take away from the conference?

  • Some people see the vast need for education across the world and online learning offers an opportunity for development, or a way to service a great new market.
  • There is also the view that online learning is an existential threat to higher education in its current form – soon everyone will be doing Harvard MOOCs and faculty everywhere else will only act as facilitators of their courses. The term “disruptive” is used all over the internet.

I think that in all of the above cases there are a few things that we need to keep in mind.

Yes, here is a vast need for education, but I do not think that the untapped profitable market that MOOC venture capitalists and university administrators are hoping for, is out there. MOOC participants have not been the uneducated, unemployed masses. So, if we are not talking about the bottom billion, but the high school educated emerging middle class looking for a university education, we should ask, what sort of MOOC education do we want to provide? Will it aid development, will it make money?

If you think that university is mainly about the textbook, study guide and lecturer speaking in front of a class, then we can simply scale up and throw in some voice-over-PowerPoint videos. This is called an xMOOC: there is a fixed design and the focus is on learner-content interaction. If it is Massive, there will be some interaction between lecturer and students on the learning management system along with lots of multiple choice assessment and peer grading. But I wonder how is this different or better than current models of distance education? How will such MOOCs not be seen as second-class qualifications?

Of course, it is possible to offer cMOOCs: an open design based on learner-learner interaction. This aims to simulate the interaction and learning networks of the more traditional higher education experience, but it requires a specific learning style from a capable and experienced student – they are not really a vast untapped market.

(Marco Kalz of the Open University had an interesting presentation about this at the conference).

Thus, it is not to say that MOOC will not extend education in the developing world or never make any money. To my mind it is just not clear that everyone who wants to change the world or make money should be running a MOOC right now.

I believe that the arguments above also go some way to answer the question about whether the U.S. MOOCs will put everyone else out of business. If you think that the on-campus experience is like an xMOOC, then the answer is that you may be uncompetitive. If you think that it is much, much more, then there is less to worry about. But to MOOC-proof your course, degree or institution means that you cannot only be the audio track to your PowerPoints in a class of 300. The on-campus, “live show” experience needs to offer more than the video online: the broad knowledge of the lecturer, the depth of the discussions, the networked learning of the class of 2013 (a vibrant campus social scene will probably not hurt either). This may even be an argument in favour of offering a MOOC: the university should segment its market. Offering an affordable MOOC makes it possible to charge more for the premium on-campus experience.

Finally, all of this is not an argument for sticking our collective heads in the sand. The revolution is coming but rolling out an xMOOC now is fighting the last war. Knowledge sharing and networked learning are more than buzz words and higher education should look at what technology has done to the music industry. You might not want the whole album, but you will pay for single songs. Maybe you have a digital collection, or you stream your music. It is mobile and shared. Live shows and festivals are bigger than ever. Big-name stars face competition from everyone. Similarly the social web has changed publishing. News and reporting has not disappeared, but newspapers are under pressure. People like the snippets of news recommended by their Twitter network. The general news that everyone is reporting, they want for free, but many are happy to pay for analysis and insight. There is competition and co-creation from and on blogs. Being part of the network is different from being loyal to a brand.

I still have to think a bit about what this means for universities: more short courses, residential and distance delivery, co-working with students and alumni, putting together bits of learning from different places and over time into accredited qualifications?

I would love to hear some thoughts on this.

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