Exciting stuff happening at MITx. This is the sort of challenge to higher education and to education in general we like to think about. It is absolutely right for MIT to do this, just as it is right for Khan to give his stuff away for free. In some ways this harks back to the good ol’ days of university education when great professors and lecturers were happy to entertain just about anybody and talk to them or teach them for free, provided the student – whoever he or she was – was serious about their study. Certainly my Dad operated like that just about as much as he could at Oxford; and he still gives several high-powered and excellent courses absolutely free because he thinks it is the right thing to do, because he has enough money to live and because he is not motivated by profit.
But there is no doubt that such initiatives as MITx, Sebastian Thrun’s Udacity and others – superb courses at massively reduced cost – pose new challenges to established, ‘brick and mortar’ universities. Many say that such online distance degrees will never have the real clout of a ‘bricks and mortar’ education: there is nothing quite like the credentials that come with having attended a real, non-virtual university in person. I myself said something like this, gosh, was it only a few months ago! But things are changing fast in HE these days.
So let me summarise two reasons why I think that promoting university degrees on the basis of ‘credentials’ is not the way to go.
1. Well, the first reason that this is not a good idea is outlined above. I.e. it will not take long for some employers to start to take the sorts of qualifications that MITx offer very seriously. Who is to say that an enlightened HR department from a leading bank or multinational corporation would not prefer excellent MITx marks in one of their graduate recruits to fairly good marks from an average university? We kid ourselves if we think that we – at the established universities – are the only ones who can stamp someone’s CV with the sorts of things that employers in 2015 and beyond will be looking for.
2. From our point of view (that it, the universities’) it is wrong to focus on credentials. For then we are at risk of getting applications from large numbers of students who are only interested in attaining these credentials, rather than the truly interesting stuff of learning, thinking and research. There is nothing more deathly for a university lecturer than being surrounded by students only desperate to graduate with the best degree they can wangle, rather than wanting to engage in the content of the degree, the intellectual journey. But if we bang on about our credentials, perhaps we have only ourselves to blame if the only students we get are those trying to play the system to get the best credentials they can.
No, it may appear idealistic (back to the future again?) but we should play for higher stakes. We should be confident that we are doing truly interesting, exciting, ground-breaking stuff at the best universities and we should be clear that we will prioritise students who are interested in this stuff. We should say – as it is very largely true – that the best students, the ones who will go on to get the best jobs, be the best innovators, the leaders, are the ones who want to learn for the inherent value of it. These are the creative thinkers of tomorrow. These are the problem-solvers and team-workers that employers tell us they are looking for. This is not to deny the obvious and important truth that most students will need a good degree to make their way in the world – or at least get a good start – but if we focus on the piece of paper (the credential) that simply says our students have passed through the system and passed some exams then we will not attract the best students, and the quality of university life for all will go down.
To keep ahead of what can now be achieved online, we need to think carefully about what we can best offer undergraduates, how we can design syllabi, courses and assessments that are unique and that interest and engage our students. We need also consider how we can give students access to the world class researchers and teachers who overwhelmingly still work in the ‘bricks and mortar’ environments. I am confident we can do it, but there is no room for complacency.
Photo attributed to Metro Transportation Library and Archive.