• October 25, 2014

Jump Off the Coursera Bandwagon

Like lemmings, too many American colleges are mindlessly rushing out to find a way to deliver online education, and more and more often they are choosing Coursera. The company, founded this year by two Stanford University computer scientists, has already enrolled more than two million students, has engaged 33 academic institutions as partners, and is offering more than 200 free massive open online courses, or MOOC's.

A college's decision to jump on the Coursera bandwagon is aided—and eased—by knowing that academic heavyweights like Harvard, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are already on board. As one college president described it to The New York Times, "You're known by your partners, and this is the College of Cardinals."

In our haste to join the academic alphas, many of us are forgoing the reflection necessary to enter this new medium. Our resolve to act swiftly belies the serious nature of this next phase of higher education's evolution. There are critical pedagogical issues at stake in the online market, and MOOC's have not done nearly enough to deal with those concerns.

Coursera and its devotees simply have it wrong. The Coursera model doesn't create a learning community; it creates a crowd. In most cases, the crowd lacks the loyalty, initiative, and interest to advance a learning relationship beyond an informal, intermittent connection.

Why should we be impressed that an online course can reach 100,000 students at once? By celebrating massification, advocates of Coursera elevate volume as the chief objective of online learning. Is that truly our goal in academe?

Interactivity and customization are the fundamental advantages of online education. By using technology, we can bridge geographic divides while creating a continuing learning relationship between faculty and students, students and students, and students and the greater society.

Our goal should be to design a customized program that matches technology with a student's day-to-day objectives, not just course objectives or weekly learning objectives. We need to operate on a small scale where the online course or program is calibrated to meet the need of the individual student.

If your view is that the promise of online learning is to reach as many people as possible, then MOOC's are your model. If you remain undecided, consider the true potential of online education with this scenario:

Two students are in a virtual auditorium taking Business Analytics 101. They listen to the same lecture and have the same opportunity for a virtual discussion, but the students are given different cases and exercises to study. They can set up distinct online discussion groups that allow them to interact with fellow students who share their particular interests. Ultimately, they can set up a unique network that best fits their needs.

For educators, the customized environment allows us to track who is learning faster or slower, who needs to supplement an understanding of the last lecture with more material, and who can move on. It actually allows our instructors to negate the challenges encountered in classrooms and lecture halls. Can massification do that?

The recent history of the newspaper industry is instructive. In the late 1990s, newspapers were in a hurry to capitalize on the online environment. Initially, still uncertain of the Internet's opportunities, most newspapers went online by establishing Web-site interfaces to widen access to their content and offering it free of charge.

That was acutely shortsighted. Print-media leaders failed to see how the online medium could deliver information. Most important, they did not develop a feasible, long-term business model. It took several years for them to grasp the revenue potential of customization, data mining, and tracking. By the time they did, their businesses were failing. The final verdict for print media is uncertain, but the lessons we can learn are not.

No doubt MOOC's will lead to innovations in the online delivery of education, just as the Internet brought about innovations in delivering news content. Yet already institutions have started down the path of the print industry by not broadly envisioning how best to deliver and customize the material and leverage the power of real-time data.

The MOOC model is fine for the informal student or academic dabbler, but it is not the same as attaining an education. Whether face to face or online, learning occurs when there is a thoughtful interaction between the student and the instructor.

If the goal is attaining knowledge for a purpose beyond mere curiosity, then the model for online learning has to be a more complex, interactive experience. For that reason, we should be happy to cede the territory of the massification to Coursera.

The business school at my institution is developing an online M.B.A. program that emphasizes the critical nature of interactivity in learning. Our next step is to design a dynamic and agile customization component that emphasizes student preferences while advancing the objectives of our institution.

We are looking for partners who want to build a platform that allows for profound customization. We want to bring together institutions interested in thinking deeply about the promise of online education for delivering a remarkable learning experience, one that equals—and, in some cases, surpasses—the face-to-face experience.

We want to align with universities that share our passion for customization to create a social movement. Working together, we can develop a platform that leverages all our strengths while using the best of the online environment to educate students. Partner institutions can share courses across that platform, allowing our students to take classes that are customized around their individual needs and goals.

Now that's a vision for online learning that could revolutionize higher education.

Doug Guthrie is dean of the George Washington University School of Business.

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