Administrators, experts uncertain about future of free online courses

Adrian Sannier, Pearson’s senior vice president for product, said Friday at Jack Morton Auditorium that MOOCs are only signs of innovation to come. Scott Figatner | Hatchet Staff Photographer

This post was written by Hatchet reporter Asha Omelian.

Administrators and online education experts gathered Friday to hash out the future of free online education, agreeing that it was nearly impossible to gauge where massive open online courses would take universities.

At the talk in Jack Morton Auditorium, some of GW’s top officials cautiously embraced the power of MOOCs, which have swept across higher education as some of the best U.S. universities like Stanford and Harvard have advocated for them.

Provost Steven Lerman echoed his previous statements that the University would create a handful of MOOCs that showcase GW’s best qualities. He said he considers this a transformative moment in which new technology is being added to rather than displacing existing practices.

“Like all technology, MOOCs will find their place over time and evolve, and we will adapt to it,” he said.

P.B. Garrett, an associate provost and chief academic technology officer, called 2012 the year of disruptive technology.

“We don’t really know where the future of education is going. We’re making it up as we go along,” Garrett said.

The growing popularity of the free online courses – with companies like Coursera and Udacity signing with the most prestigious names in higher education – prompted The New York Times to dub last year “The Year of the MOOC.” Administrators around the country have debated whether the courses would disrupt universities’ tuition-based revenue streams and change how they teach students.

But the event, called “The Future of Higher Education: MOOCs and Disruptive Innovations,” also featured a lineup of MOOC skeptics.

GW School of Business Dean Doug Guthrie compared MOOCs to textbooks, claiming that they are just a new way of packaging technology instead of being a new and disruptive innovation. He said education should be focused on the community and interactions, not mass production.

Guthrie discussed the business school’s digital community, a suite of online degree and co-curricular programs that linked the school up with the education company Pearson. Guthrie was firm in stating that this program was not the same as a MOOC, and instead produced an “interactive experience, where the experience is individualized.”

Adrian Sannier, Pearson’s senior vice president for product, said MOOCs are only signals of innovation to come. But to be successful, the new technology needs a marketplace.

He said a major problem is that universities are trying to get into the business of making courses when they should be in the business of curating courses already created.

“The problem is people aren’t buying this stuff. We are still buying and assigning textbooks,” he said.

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