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Massive, Open, Online—and Personalized

University Business, April 2013

It’s one of modern cinema’s most familiar and resonant moments: the scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character humiliates a Harvard student, contending that the Ivy Leaguer blew $150,000 to learn less than Will could learn with a library card.

Will Hunting might have been thrilled with the massive, internet-driven disruption that’s coming to higher education, trailing the carnage it has left in industries like music and print publishing. With hundreds of MOOCs taught by top professors from great universities, the price of content and theory is plummeting towards “free.” Not even a library card is needed.

In my own academic field of entrepreneurship, dynamic experiential opportunities offered by accelerators, incubators, maker/coworking spaces, and community meet-ups may enable students to bypass a degree—saving a fortune and getting a multiple-year head start on building their companies.
If you’re the next “Will Hunting,” what could be better? With the proliferation of high-quality, for-credit MOOCs, why not “home college”? Why not take at least your first- and second-year courses online, and then (if you desire) transfer into a four-year school?

There’s a catch, of course. Not everyone is Will Hunting. Nor is everyone prepared. Or focused. Or resilient.

Can these technologies be made to work for the full spectrum of students who actually exist? Including millions already at risk of failure due to insufficient support?

Perhaps. But colleges will need to create far more customized paths for each student, course, and program. They’ll have to experiment rapidly and extensively—and learn quickly from their experiments. Most of all, they’ll have to double-down on the issues of motivation and remediation they’re already struggling with.

There isn’t much time—especially for weaker institutions. Even community colleges, which have seen increased enrollment from budget-conscious freshmen who’ll eventually transfer to four-year schools, will face “bottom-up” disruption from online alternatives.

Many students may find themselves in the middle, desiring a looser (and less costly) relationship with an academic institution, but a richer experience than today’s MOOCs offer. One can envision online courses supplemented by community and experiential activities to more closely resemble a campus environment.

Making Stronger Connections

Imagine supplemental video chats, virtual book clubs/discussions, and especially meet-ups at local campuses, libraries, or community centers—crucial to overcome the isolation and “digital cocooning” that are major risks of the online education revolution.

Stronger connections can also be embedded into online platforms and syllabi. Tools might gently and creatively nudge students from the very outset, so they’re less likely to fall behind. In-lecture checks (such as Coursera has) can improve retention by checking knowledge after every small chunk of content; grades might be partly based on timely completion of these brief, ongoing quizzes.

Teaching at large-scale, committed instructors in many fields can gain a deeper understanding of which explanations work best, and may be able to evolve classes that are demonstrably more effective.

On the human side, institutions can integrate elements of advising, concierge, and social work to keep students on task, and ensure access to the right resources. New e-tools could help advisors deliver more and timelier individualized guidance. Such tools might draw on technologies like those now used by Narrative Science and Automated Insights to generate automated newspaper articles.

Some potential problems of online education may prove easy to solve. For example, if the best lecturers develop audiences of millions, they might crowd out other voices. But institutions can use readings and sections to provide critical counterpoints.

Ultimately, students, parents, and colleges must work together more closely to take advantage of the best online and offline resources. At times, students will certainly need to turn off digital devices, to build personal skills and community engagement. But if new and old tools are used together flexibly—not dogmatically—we can have smarter graduates, a stronger and more adaptable workforce, and millions of new lifelong learners.