Too Cool for School

The future of education may be pants optional.

For many years I worked as an IT trainer, flying around the world teaching IT classes. I still remember delivering my first online class — just me and a room filled with vacant computers. I talked while pacing as if people were sitting in those seats, as my class was beamed to offices, bedrooms, and who knows where else.  

As the Internet intertwines more into our lives, this experience is something to which university and college professors are becoming much more accustomed. Leading this charge is a concept called MOOCs, or “massively online open courses.” The early idea of a MOOC was to record one or more college seminars or lectures and introduce them to the public free or for a fee. Stanford University, an early adopter of the concept, introduced three lectures from noted professors. Since then, several companies have formed as portals to the growing MOOC world such as Udacity, Coursera, and EdX.

These companies have worked to refine the concept and package video learning with extensive educational tools like forums, chats or assignments and quizzes to determine how well you understand the topic. They also have worked to broaden the type of content available by partnering with universities and professors to create more original content.

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In 2012, University of Wisconsin system introduced a new competency-based degree program. On the surface, the idea was nothing new — qualify for college credits by showcasing the many skills you’ve learned working a trade or through other training programs. What makes the program unique is that the degree is backed by the 26 universities that make up the Wisconsin university system. It also opens the door for full college credits from MOOCs.

For the education sector, the idea of MOOCs is both compelling and frightening. Using the Internet as a distribution mechanism allows students to complete coursework on their own time and access a broader library of educational content. However, it also brings into question the need for so many brick-and-mortar institutions. Why take business classes at LSU when I can stream them online from Harvard?

Around the world, responses to this approach have been mixed. Some universities have jumped in head first, with schools like San Jose University offering the first MOOC-only master’s program. However, many academics feel the approach shifts the balance of effort from instructors to students. These lectures require students to do more legwork, more research and figure out a way to manage their own schedules. As you can imagine, completion rates have been fairly low, typically less than 10 percent. Many “drop out” after the first week of educational content.

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Andrew Sluyter, an LSU professor, blogged about his first experience taking a MOOC. The points that stood out in his post are the same as many critics — it takes a lot of motivation to continue through the courses, something that is magnified when you consider that many of these courses do not currently come with college credit.

Personally, I do not believe in an all-or-nothing approach. I think the future of education is, without question, a blend of online and institutional experience. Many colleges and universities excel at specific programs but come up lacking on many others. As a student, I think the ability to seek out personal relationships for those things core to my education is important, but also I should have the ability to look for the best-of-breed content from other institutions where available.

Jason MICHAEL Perry is the director of the Drupal Practice at Fig Leaf Software. Maybe we might enroll in the same MOOC, but until then tweet me at @jasonmperry or email

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