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Who says online courses will cause the death of universities?

Image Credit: Berni/Shutterstock

This guest post is by Tom Katsouleas, Dean of Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering and chair of the National Academy of Engineering’s advisory committee on engineering grand challenges for the 21st Century.

In a recent editorial, futurist Ray Kurzweil compared the current university model to the bookstore model, suggesting that universities will be undermined by online the way digital books undermined Borders. Others have suggested that universities are headed the way of the newspaper. Others have suggested that online teaching represents a new funding model for universities.

Yogi Berra said predictions are hard, “especially about the future.” With that in mind there are a couple of perspectives to take from predictions in old issues of Popular Science or Scientific American: Futurists always over-estimate how soon new technology will manifest and researchers in the field always underestimate it. The bottom line, though, is that while online education poses a challenge for universities, they will ultimately improve them.

I’d like to offer a couple of metaphors for higher education today. One is to celebrate the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) like the onset of the textbooks coupled with public libraries. In theory, this opened the totality of human knowledge to everyone. In reality, though, a lot of knowledge is stored in the minds of scholars pushing the edges of their fields. Which means that at the PhD level, research universities play the roles of powering innovation and passing their knowledge on to the next generation. But those roles are subsidized by the undergraduate and Masters education that pays the salaries of the faculty.

It is at the Masters level that traditional universities will first feel the effect of MOOCs. In our visits to corporate partners like Apple and Cisco, it was clear that most top engineers and executives are using MOOCs for their lifelong learning in a way that some used to use corporate sponsored masters programs. Although universities provide individual and team project-based learning that are still difficult to replicate online, a Masters education can be taken anywhere.

What about undergraduate education? The undergraduate period is the time when one discovers one’s place in the world, what it means to be human and develops a sense of joy for the life of the mind. Online education will allow universities to do that even better:  for one, they will provide a way for the best teachers to be recognized and promoted for something other than just research, a long time concern in the APT process at research universities. And by moving lecturing online, MOOCs allow in-person time to be more interactive, dynamic, and valuable.

There’s another benefit to online teaching for universities that my fellow dean and former ATT Research leader Robert Calderbank calls the “rock star effect.” For example, people buy an album for $9.99 but pay much more to see Madonna in concert.  This is the business model metaphor that most closely fits the future of higher ed:  MOOCS, like CDs and downloads, will enable personal learning opportunities at low cost to a large market, while at the same time universities will provide an environment for a smaller audience of undergraduates to gain wisdom as well as knowledge personally from those who create the knowledge. This will allow teachers to become true educators. And as Duke Engineering Professor April Brown is quick to remind our faculty, the Latin root of the word educate is  ‘educe,’ which means to draw out that which lies inside the student.

There is room for both MOOCS and this type of university experience. Students will continue to see the value of a live interaction versus one through a screen, but not all of them will have the means or ability to pursue that path.  We have to take advantage of what each can provide to bring the full value to the student.

Despite the challenges to universities posed by MOOCs, there are great advantages to them as well. And the best universities will be able to capitalize on those advantages to provide the best value for their students – whether that value is online or in person. Despite what some see as a threat to higher education, MOOCs will only help it get better.

[Top image credit: Berni/Shutterstock]