MOOCs: Falling In The Degree Trap

MOOCs are taking big strides towards becoming accredited, but is that the right thing to do?

As some of the Coursera courses get recognition for college credit, the mood for MOOC enthusiasts is definitely celebratory. The idea is gaining traction, they say, and here is proof that it is no longer a fad. The MOOC will now challenge college education, bemoan its detractors, pointing out that it is surely the inferior alternative. 

The full college degree, as everyone is expecting MOOCs to get to some day, is a far cry from sme college credit. MOOCs will have to change their essential character to do full college degrees, as their major challenge, assessments, will become central in that game. Without the massiveness and the openness, MOOCs are not much of a phenomenon; Open and Distance learning existed for a long time. Russian engineers were training themselves by the Radio in the 1950s, as around the same time, earning diplomas. The game-changing possibility of MOOCs is whether these can disrupt the degree economy, and to do so, they must stay clear of the degree trap.

Degrees will remain the currency of Higher Education, claims Daniel Pianko and Ryan Craig in Inside Higher Education, and indeed they have facts on their side. Never before in history, there were so many students worldwide studying for a degree programme. At the same time, however, the fortune of the degrees can be compared with that of our real world currencies: Everyone claims the system is broken, but since it is too disruptive to fail, the system is allowed to carry on. The question is, therefore, why try to connect an exciting new innovation to what is already a failing model? Why not seek the credibility elsewhere?

The obvious alternative is the employers, but we already know the limitations of an employer-led model. The here-and-now culture of a Hiring organisation focuses too much on immediate skill requirement, which does no favours to the students' future prospects. Besides, employer-led training is also old hash, not something suitable for an exciting new thing like MOOC. It will take away the key attraction - that of knowing something really new or novel - and may make the whole thing about filling out forms and ticking the boxes, as vocational education often is.

The less obvious route, but one that fits the MOOC model better, is possibly to build a community of practice around the platform. It is easier in this case than it sounds: The massive scale of MOOCs is really its strength, and the community already includes a number of decision makers, employers and practitioners. Evolving its own global credential model, based around its own community, is plausible: In fact, if anything, this will upset various national regulators less than if MOOCs purport to give out degrees.

It is indeed something that will play out in coming months. The way I see it, MOOCs are here to stay. If anything, they represent an exciting new innovation in education, and one example where private investment can create a credible alternative. But it is a different game: Falling into the socially mandated degree trap will project MOOCs as the inferior alternative, rather than a different route that they really are.


Unknown said…
MOOCs will have eventually degrees.
Model 1:
Students at the colleges now take courses from Duke, Harvard etc. College assigs a facilitator to the online courses. College gives credit toward a degree when stuydents pass the exams .
If 5 courses are taken then 50 % tuition reduction +better education+more space at the college.
Model 2
MOOCs universities themselves will award degrees when they provide around 50 online courses . It will take time
Unknown said…
How to get degree from MOOCs
see my blog

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