An historical perspective

“When you think of the perfect vision of education, is usually looks like two people, one master and one student, discussing ideas,” said Carey. “And that’s the oldest construct of education there is, dating to ancient times when wealthy aristocrats could hire scholars to tutor their children or themselves. But did you know technology changed all that?”

Carey explained that a ‘technology,’ otherwise known as the written word, developed. And just like MOOCs today, there were skeptics.

Socrates, said Carey, was not a fan of the written word’s potential to change education, and even said:

“…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

“I mean, Socrates was onto something, but what he failed to do was to notice the benefits to the written word, too. Specifically, being able to extend learning across distances, become a larger storage medium for information, and make accessible—and therefore more affordable—education to a larger group of people,” noted Carey. “It also improved the quality of education by allowing for collaboration, revisions, and editions over time.”

Since the written word, more technologies have been added to education, such as the printing press and the postal service, but none have improved the quality of education like the internet has, said Carey, until now.

“Those benefits of the written word are the same for online learning and the tools of computing, AI, and the internet today. Only with the internet, the last barrier of distance has been torn down, and with AI, computing can now surpass even human capabilities,” he stated.

According to Carey, today’s skeptics, usually from traditional colleges, are badly underestimating the potential of MOOCs and the internet.

Do the skeptics have a point?

“Skeptics from traditional colleges have no provable evidence that taking an online course is worse than a face-to-face one,” emphasized Carey. “No evidence—evidence that would met their own criteria for evidence—can be determined. You can’t quantify the benefits of face-to-face, and even then you’d have to weigh those benefits against the amount of money needed to provide, and for students to pay, to have those benefits. These technologies are slowly eating away at traditional higher education and they’ll continue to do so.”

Jeffrey Selingo, author of College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students, contributing editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, and professor of practice at ASU, mirrors Carey’s sentiments, saying that change for higher education isn’t new, but this time, it’s not going away.

“Most college officials I speak to say that this is another temporary downturn and it will change, but I don’t think that’s the case this time, simply because of the accessibility of the technology and the financial landscape. The net revenue collected per student reported by most colleges today is the same since 2007, even with rising tuition. It’s not sustainable.”

(Next page: What about retention rates? What’s the future?)


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