Will MOOCs kill universities as we know them?

Scientific American has just published a special report on a wide range of views on how Internet technology is changing the face of education.http://www.scientificamerican.com/editorial/digital-education/ . Discussion of this broad topic in media and in institutions of learning has led a number of people to predict the “end” of universities and colleges. Often cited as the death-knell of institutions of higher learning are MOOCs and other freely accessible courses.

However, in the same way that television did not kill film and print magazines are experiencing steady growth in the Internet age, I think the key outcome will not be replacement of universities, but a shift in roles. And it is only true to the extent that we look at universities uniquely as furnishers of fundamental job training.

In fact, offering courses on line is a great opportunity for universities to perform differently a role that they have never really been comfortable with: society’s job trainers. Fields like law, medicine and dentistry notwithstanding – these remain, after all, indispensable sources of money and prestige – the academy is at its best when forming more researchers and thinkers, putting the pieces together to create new knowledge, and acting as society’s think tanks. These functions can be assisted by on-line technology, but at their heart, they require the synergy that comes from physical proximity and face-to-face challenging of ideas.

So do some aspects of teaching. But the bulk of basic training (career preparedness, fundamental theory and practice) can be done effectively on line. The key to success in this respect is training the trainers to use the technology effectively.  If universities devote energy to this effort, they will make the most of new technology instead of being dragged along by it.