But what about retention rates? And is there value in face-to-face interactions?

According to Robert Wright, Author of Nonzero, senior Future Tense fellow, and visiting lecturer at Princeton University, who conducted his first MOOC on Buddhism and psychology, too much emphasis is being given to retention rates.

“Attrition rate doesn’t matter for the viability of MOOCs because of the fundamental supply and demand: Professors are motivated to teach and there will always be interested students,” he explained.

Of course, Wright did note that there is a certain psychological toll in seeing participation rates plunge, but he realizes that the curve has to go down, since it’s “not like The Tonight Show, where in theory your viewers can increase exponentially, since if you didn’t watch Tuesday night’s show you could still fully understand Wednesday’s show.”

“The question to ask,” he continued, “is ‘How steep is too steep for drop off?’ The answer is maybe the curve doesn’t matter, but rather the absolute numbers. By the end of the class I had roughly 2,000 students complete my midterm and course, with no motivation (since we offer no credits) except to learn. That’s extraordinary.”

Wright also compared the experience to a book, saying that like books, MOOCs may not always get “read” all the way through. Sometimes you just need a chapter, and sometimes you just want to read the table of contents.

“We should measure ‘intention’ in MOOCs,” said Selingo. “That may be more informative.”

That being said, there is value in face-to-face interaction, he noted, as many students, especially in the humanities, need another’s excitement about the topic to become fully motivated.

The future of higher education and technology

“That’s why communities of learning are so important,” said Adrian Sannier, chief academic technology officer at ASU Online. “What colleges can provide, and what may be worth paying for, are strong learning communities. Let’s face it, most people are not autodidacts—they need some form of learning community to keep motivated. I think the next big question will be ‘What’s the next generation of learning communities going to look like?’”

“The universities that will survive will be the ones that stand upon technology,” he said.

Minerva, a relatively new model of higher education, understands that community and curriculum outside of lecture, is the future of higher education.

“We think about what the academic and life experience of the student should be in higher-ed,” said Robin Goldberg, chief marketing officer at Minerva Project.

Minerva, explained Goldberg, believes that lectures are great for information dissemination, and that’s what free MOOCs are for. But it’s the college curriculum that should teach students how to think, or how to develop habits of mind.

“We offer students curriculum that supports higher-order thinking skills and active learning. We also immerse students in new cultures and encourage communities of learning,” she said.

“You can look at this ‘disruption’ of learning as what happened similarly to the banking industry,” said Sannier. “Thanks to new information technologies, no one actually visits the bank teller, except maybe my mother. But that didn’t change banking. There are still banking institutions. What’s changed is the way people bank, and the banks left standing today are the banks that embraced that IT change.”

For more information on the day’s panels and commentary, read “Untangling the knots’ of educational technology.”


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