“No MOOC (*)? You’re a moron (*)!”

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“MOOCs” are in. Every college and school across the board has one: “No MOOC? You’re a moron.” What lies in store for universities and select business, engineering, and scientific schools once every ounce of knowledge will be available 24/7 online? How can we prove who we are and from where we come when we can be anywhere, anytime?

The most prestigious universities in the United States, such as Stanford (*), MIT, and Harvard, have hopped on the MOOC bandwagon. MOOC refers to “Massive Open Online Course”, or in layman’s terms, the ability to digitally diffuse the sacred scientific word across the globe. MOOCs are to Stanford what the Urbi et Orbi blessing is to the Vatican; that is, the chance to spread the sacred word either in the comfort of one’s own home or to anyone the world over.

Internet is a vast breeding ground for users around the globe to inform and become informed. Colleges and universities use it to flaunt their online offering, informally establishing a “Who’s Who” list of those that make the cut and those that do not quite measure up. MOOCs may be broken down into two categories: dogmatic and collaborative. The first resembles a lecture hall-type setting. The other is more group-oriented, pooling together a variety of individuals, be they professors, learners or third parties, for the purposes of giving and gathering information on topics in common.

Internet, hyper-interaction or the opportunity to not only interact with knowledge, but also represent it, globalization, and the powerful role that the image and reputation of certain operators play will level the playing field and set in motion an entirely new ballgame. Every single class at the most renowned universities and every piece of knowledge and competency borne from the greatest minds and faculty will be available to all four corners of the earth at the touch of a button through the simple click of a mouse. In addition, the price to pay is likely to amount to practically nothing at all. A new kind of academic imperialism may just be in the midst of emerging alongside a new economic order.

The leading universities, and perhaps the most wealthy, are rolling out the best MOOCs they can with a second-to-none line-up of professors, giving schools a competitive advantage that showcases their academic breadth and expertise. Just when American campuses are having to revisit course design and overall operations, the timing could not be any better, economically-speaking. The financial bubble made up of States-side student debt is on the verge of exploding.

Low-income American households can no longer afford a college education. It takes those of the middle class 25 years to pay off school loans. Universities are becoming increasingly out of reach, and their mission to diffuse knowledge is proving available to only a select few. Their funding relies on student-fed debt. Things become even more complicated in a job market that cannot guarantee a spot to every graduate. With a price tag well outside the majority of average-earning household purse strings, universities in the United States have no other choice but to tackle new, more global markets.

Without any real or founded desire to do so, French schools are giving in to “MOOC.fr.” It is all about being in the right place at the right time. There are even MOOCs that create MOOCs. They are everywhere you look on the web, though more clearly laid-out strategies on the part of schools, or better yet, instructions on how to more effectively follow the movement or trend remain a blur, not to mention how not to fall “behind the times.” How MOOCs are presented still needs a bit of fine-tuning regarding the purpose they serve, the benefits they provide, and the strategies needed for a successful deployment.

We recall the experiments carried out in France nearly 20 years ago involving videos that were supposed to fill in for, if not entirely replace, the physical teacher presence. In reality, the videos merely supplemented the class content, and did not, as planned, substitute the teacher. In the end, videos lost their appeal, and books returned to the spotlight… the very same books that we now find on tablets. Neither teachers nor books have gone away. Videos, on the other hand, have!

We would like principals to give their stamp of approval on creating a “wall-less school” where students no longer come to class, but rather follow their curriculum from wherever they may be. This would be a genuine breakthrough for a project with limitless potential. That said, how would we justify where we are or from where we come?

A model such as this does exist. Its name is Anadolu University, and is located in a city of 40,000 residents by the name of Eskisehir in Turkey. The school boasts an annual enrollment of one (1) million Business students spread out across the globe. This may just be the world’s largest university. The model in question features a university devoid of walls; one wherein students do not interact as they normally would in a traditional classroom setting, but this may not be as indispensable to the learning process as once thought.

Science is universal. Management teachings have also become so. Efforts made by “Business Schools” to develop marketing or management models enable these institutions to offer classes in MOOC mode just like for any scientific discipline. Experimentation is taking a back seat to more theory-based approaches to teaching. Hands-on workshops and small group collaboration are fading, which, in turn, open schools up to a wide range of multimedia-driven, educational possibilities across a number of subject matters.

It does not take a rocket scientist to grasp the reason underlying online classes. In a nutshell, the aim is to get a maximum amount of information out to as many as possible, sparking images of virtual auditoriums filled with 1K, 10K, and even 100K students. In addition, the offering puts certain schools in the spotlight worldwide, but on condition that the language of instruction be accessible and understandable by a maximum number of people. In France, offering MOOCs in French would immediately compromise the messages’ universal breadth, unless used for conveying a politically-, culturally- or identity-related point.

But universal science is not the best way to diffuse information from a cultural angle. OK – so there’s a French School of Mathematics. On the other hand, Math is universal. If we were to group all scientific research throughout the world, it would be best if the same language were spoken: English.

MOOCs mean making the best classes accessible to all. So, when everything is possible, why opt for less when we can have more?

Why would we take a MOOC on “Design Thinking” in France when that of IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown (“Change by Design”) at Stanford’s Institute of Design and D.School is but a click away?

It goes without saying then that if money is not an issue, we may as well take a class at Harvard than at HEC. The rivalry between schools is likely to take on mammoth dimensions, and, ultimately, for no reason at all given that all Accounting classes will be the same since taught by the same professors from the same universities.

Competition will know no limits when it comes to implementing a “divide-and-conquer” strategy to acquire mobile and “multi-connected” student markets; however, winning their vote will come down to the label associated with the degree and the clout it bears granted by the top-ranking schools around. Today, MOOCs are having a ridiculously hard time bringing students on board. They show significant dropout rates. However, the once impossible quest of obtaining the most reputable degree is now within reach, and this is bound to throw a curveball into the number of dropouts currently seen.

The danger lies in concentrating all of the knowledge in big-name schools boasting the most prominent faculties and empowered with the greatest means of communication. The others will have to have to propose more specialized areas of study, and ensure that what they offer is relevant, sound, and unparalleled.

So, the question remains: What lies ahead for universities and schools that offer a general education? Instead of creating MOOCs, perhaps it would make more sense to invent the school of tomorrow. Doing so would favor hands-on learning and experimentation, further students’ confidence to take on the role of teacher by entrusting them with the freedom to devise and design, foster learning, exchange, and synergy by bringing people together to share and swap theories and applications, be it in small groups, workshops or the like, and not only fuel, but feed the creative appetite, giving us the means and mental force to imagine a different world, another world; one that puts the environment on a pedestal, one that respects its moral obligations, one in which technology rhymes with humanity, and one in which the economy champions progress and not financial gain.

”As Director of L’École de design, I have no chance at putting together a better MOOC than Stanford and Tim Brown on Design Thinking. However, it will be in the workshops of my school that the students, taught and overseen by our designers and faculty members, will put together the world of tomorrow. Businesses in the 21st century, ones with meaning and direction, will emerge from our “garages” by students connected around the world and with the world.”

* MOOC: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massive_open_online_course

* “Moron”: term used by young people to denote an idiot, old fogey or imbecile. It apparently stems from the slang meaning “lobotomized.”

* Stanford MOOC list: http://www.mooc-list.com/university-entity/stanford-university

* ”Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation” – Tim Brown

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