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MOOCs and the future of education

Evariste Lefeuvre By Evariste Lefeuvre Published on November 5, 2015

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The spread of online courses is often portrayed as a highly encouraging development. The success of “massive open online courses” (www.mooc-list.com), the Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org/) or equivalents around the world like the France Université Numérique (FUN) is undeniable. But will this be sufficient to increase the overall level of education? Will they be more effective at combatting technological unemployment?

Access to online courses is probably a very good thing for the incremental improvement of education, as the feedback and ratings given by users help to modify and adjust their content. They also turn the nature of teaching upside down. As underlined by French philosopher Michel Serres, “The presumption of incompetence has given way to the presumption of knowledge: our students are already informed.”  Thanks to MOOCs, it is now possible to know the content of a lecture even before attending it. Professors, meanwhile, are able to envisage a close relationship and interaction with their students. The reversal of the role of the professor probably constitutes the biggest break from the past brought about by MOOCs. Lone speakers when delivering lectures, teachers now have to favor interaction with their students.

The fact remains that although internet access is increasingly widespread, the incentive to take MOOCs can be severely limited by the isolation, absence of real information and loneliness that characterize this form of learning. Without guidance or a group effect, online courses are not having the hoped-for ripple effect in terms of spreading education.

The documentary Ivory Tower offers a good insight into the benefits and limits of MOOCs. At the initiative of former American university professors like Daphne Koller and Sebastian Thrun, there are now several semi-private companies specialized in the provision of online courses such as Coursera or Udacity. The latter, for example, sold its services to San Jose State University in 2012 in the hope of lifting the average level of algebra and elementary statistics. The results were very poor and the contract was rescinded one year later. Udacity responded mainly by citing a lack of discipline, persistence and motivation among users. Although it is partially right, this explanation overlooks one major factor in education: the relationship with teachers and other students. The latter fiercely criticized the overly vague nature of the courses, a lack of feedback and expressed frustration at the lack of contact with anyone.

Harvard’s famous CS50 IT course is also available as a MOOC via edX. The fact it has been put online has not altered students’ regular attendance or participation in lectures and tutorials – evidence that the need for proximity and contact is crucial. So online courses make it possible to prepare for lessons in advance, but are unlikely – or at least not in the short term – to replace traditional forms of education with the same degree of effectiveness, despite their growing cost. In the words of the co-founder of Coursera, university is “prestige, it’s socialization, it’s meeting your future spouse and it’s making friends for life.”  (1) Moreover, and above all, it is about learning to communicate, exchange, deduce and work in a group. The lack of proximity, interaction and therefore often incentive is a barrier that will have to be overcome in the future for MOOCs to reach their potential.

For the time being, MOOCs are tending more to complement or sharpen the skills of already well-trained people rather than to raise the knowledge level of the population as a whole. This suggests that universal access is far from being synonymous with universal usage. Without the recognition of a diploma for those who take them, online courses will not have the hoped-for ripple effect in terms of spreading education. Unless, of course, the concepts of course recognition and validation can be broadened further.

Aware of this limit, Coursera has launched the first online MBA with the University of Illinois. Efforts have been made to match the content with the skills most often sought in online job offers. Above all, certificates are now available for a fee. While this requires a whole gamut of anti-cheating techniques, the qualification at the end offers a real incentive to take such courses.

This path is without doubt the right one, given the growing cost of traditional forms of education. But the real advantage of MOOCs is that they relegate basic knowledge to a position of secondary importance. Such a statement may seem shocking at a time when a lack of qualifications is often put forward as one of the major sources of technological unemployment. By providing a style of learning in step with the pace and timetable of each student and by offering short courses, MOOCs enable more efficient accumulation of knowledge by the largest number of people. Above all, they enable lifelong learning, which may reduce the risk of technological unemployment. But this knowledge is not the same as that which sets humans apart from machines. What makes humans unique is their ability to interact and initiate. In addition to universal – and often cheaper – access to skills, MOOCs should above all be useful in their ability to change the nature of interaction between professors and students and to develop key skills for tomorrow’s jobs: teamwork, decentralization of decision-making, changing tastes, initiative, information sharing. Paradoxically, it is also by bringing together individuals in new forms of teaching and interaction that MOOCs will help combat technological unemployment. 

(1) Wall Street Journal, June 6 2015.

Evariste Lefeuvre began his career at Caisse des Depots et Consignation in 1999 as the U.S. economist before being appointed Deputy Head of Research in 2003. In 2006 he created the Multi Asset ... Show More

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