Blog | Friday, January 25, 2013

If online learning is the answer, then what is the question?

I have written about massive open online courses (MOOCs) before, once wondering whether disruptive innovation was finally coming to higher education and then further noting that a colleague was creating a MOOC from the materials of the ONC Health IT Curriculum. (I am pleased to report that the MOOC is making good progress.)

MOOCs also have attained quite a bit of discussion as part or all of the solution to the problem of runaway costs of higher education in the United States. The New York Times has called this year the Year of the MOOC, while others wonder if this is finally the time that Silicon Valley-style disruptive innovation will come to higher education.

I have skin in this game in a number of ways. One is that I direct a large graduate program in a public health science university that has minimal government financial support, i.e., the program is mostly dependent on tuition, training grants, and other sources of funding. This graduate program is in an academic department that I chair that is likewise being asked to achieve increasing fiscal self-sufficiency in all its activities.

I am also reaching the end of a well-funded project to develop a health information technology (HIT) curriculum for colleges and universities. In addition, I am the parent of two children, one of whom recently completed a bachelor's degree and the other who is still in undergraduate studies but planning further education beyond her bachelor's degree, both in public state universities. And of course, I am a U.S. citizen concerned about my country's long-term fiscal solvency while maintaining economic competitiveness through a highly educated populace.

To some, MOOCs are seen as a way to reduce the costs of higher education, which is under increasing scrutiny to demonstrate its value. Based on my own experience with distance learning, I am optimistic that online education can be efficient and scalable. Although I do not find myself in agreement with many of the political positions of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, I admit to having sympathy for his challenge to higher education to create a $10,000 bachelor's degree.

That said, I recognize that online courses alone do not an education make, especially a college education. College is also about maturation, participating in non-academic activities, and developing skills beyond just mastering of knowledge, such as leadership, mentorship, volunteerism, and more. I have no doubt that MOOCs can replace the kind of large lecture classes I took as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, i.e., the "101" classes. But I am less convinced they can replace the smaller courses, the hands-on experiences, the volunteer activities, and so forth.

As enthusiastic as I am about the use of educational technology, I do not see online courses alone comprising the entire educational experience. Even in our online graduate program, we encourage networking and participation in professional organizations among our students. We have created a practicum and internship program that allows even our remote students to get real-world experience. A "distance education" in our program is not just a succession of online courses. Our students are engaged in a virtual community with us.

At the same time, I also worry that low-cost college education may create a two-class system, one of children of parents with the means to afford a four-year in-residence college education and all of its benefits, and the other of students whose college experience is mostly impersonal. I believe we need a balance.

Another interesting aspect about MOOCs and other online repositories of educational materials is the notion of "openness." I was prodded into thinking about this by some from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) who want to see the curriculum be maintained in some open, perhaps crowdsourcing, project. This made me realize that MOOCs and similar initiatives are open in the sense that they are accessible to many people. But the openness is only one-way, i.e., the rest of the world cannot alter the "open" materials.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Phenomena like Wikipedia not withstanding, I believe there is a role for materials that have authorship and authority. The Web facilitates their annotation, but not their underlying alteration. Even Wikipedia and the myriad of open-source software projects have found a need for governance. I relish the idea of everyone in the world annotating the ONC HIT curriculum, but I am less enthusiastic about everyone in the world updating the source materials.

Notwithstanding my concerns, I am excited to play a small role in the disruptive innovation of higher education through my own work. But I also know that MOOCs are not the complete solution. I envision a future where students are wedded to an educational institution, but have the flexibility of online learning and the ability to have some of their learning come from other teachers and institutions. Perhaps that is why initiatives like Semester Online, where 10 universities are sharing courses among each other, with appropriate transfers of academic credit and tuition money, will survive if MOOCs turn out to be a passing fad. We can probably learn from systems like the European Credit Transfer System (ETCS), which standardizes credits for higher education and allows their transfer across educational institutions.

I hope we can achieve a happy middle ground of making the best use of the dissemination and collaboration afforded by the Internet while still recognizing the value attachment to a real institution of higher learning. I also believe the cost of higher education can be reduced, but as former Harvard President Derek Bok used to say, If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.
This post by William Hersh, MD, FACP, Professor and Chair, Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology, Oregon Health & Science University, appeared on his blog Informatics Professor, where he posts his thoughts on various topics related to biomedical and health informatics.