A couple of years ago TechCrunch wrote an article that asked Why is the University Still Here? In a time where information is universally accessible, knowledge can be compiled by experts and shared in a reviewed and verified form far and wide, and intelligence can be conveyed direct from an expert in Oxford (England) to an able learner in Liberal (Kansas) if both are ready, willing, and able thanks to virtual classrooms with audio-visual conferencing and screen sharing.
Then, earlier this decade, we saw the launch of massive open online courses (MOOCs) where anyone can register for a course from a leading professor, get the lectures, complete assignments, send them to TAs (teaching assistants) half a world away, get graded (automatically for multiple choice and by a human for essay or problem solving questions), and work towards what is supposed to be the equivalent of a University degree. But is it?
First of all, universities, even with remote learning aspects, have always been based on classroom learning. Secondly, advanced programs have always been based on one-on-one instruction between teacher and student. Thirdly, they have always been based on carefully structured curriculums that are designed to ensure a student gets an appropriate depth and breadth of knowledge. Fourth, the testing is always done in a manner that makes cheating or plagiarism difficult.
MOOCs are the antitheticals of University. They are trying to abolish classrooms. There is no personal one-on-one instruction between a recorded lecture and a semi-engaged viewer. The student can design their own haphazard curriculum that ensures neither depth nor breadth in the appropriate subject matter. And anyone can submit a document created by anyone else and there is no way to know.
But the failure of MOOCs to displace universities is not an argument for the continued existence of universities. Just because X does not displace Y, that doesn’t mean that Y is superior. It just means that the masses do not believe that X is superior. In our case, it’s not enough of a case for universities.
To make the case, we look at where MOOCs failed. As per the techcrunch article, they failed in keeping a user’s interest. Most people who registered for and even started a course, never completed. Most who completed didn’t come back. They weren’t motivated. The reasoning in the article is that because, for the majority of learners, it was part time, on their own time, it never got primacy and without primacy, efforts get abandoned.
And that’s part of the reason MOOCs failed and part of the reason we still need Universities. When you go to University, you make education a primary focus of your life. But the other reason is that a real, established, prestigious University provides something no other form of education can — a well-rounded full-featured educational experience with primacy, one-on-one instruction from an expert, great curriculums, and, most important, a community to share the experience with. This last aspect is key — you are part of a dedicated group of people there to learn and share the experience of learning and better each other in the process. And while that group shrinks a bit over the years, by the end, you have your own support group, and possibly a few colleagues for life, that got you there and take you further. That’s something you’ll never get from a MOOC.
And that’s why Universities still exist and need to continue to exist.