Where will good jobs come from in our emerging digital economy? This is a really important question given the dramatic changes taking place in the economy, mostly driven by the continuing advances in technology and the forces of globalization. Unfortunately, we don’t have very good answers.
But, just about every study on the subject points to a similar trend: for the foreseeable future, the US economy will need better educated workers. Workers without a post-secondary education face a contracting set of job opportunities. Those with higher educational attainments will be in the best position to obtain good jobs with good pay.
Moreover, while the overall unemployment/underemployment rates remain persistently high, a 2011 McKinsey report found that employers are having trouble filling specific positions because they could not find applicants with the right skills. The report projects that if economic conditions improve, there will be a shortage of 1.5 million workers with college degrees by 2020, but a surplus of almost 6 million of workers with no high school degree. It also projects a shortage of workers with technical, health care, and other skills requiring a post-secondary education but not necessarily a college degree.
This is not surprising given the central role of information and knowledge in our increasingly digital economy. However, our colleges and universities, the very institutions to which the country should turn to help us address these growing educational demands, are facing problems of their own. Tuition costs have been rising faster than the rate of inflation, thus making it harder for them to serve the students most in need of their services. Many educational institutions are facing financial difficulties. The financial crisis has been aggravating the situation, at both public and private institutions. Government education budgets are under pressure at all levels, - local, state and national.
In one way or another, online learning has been with us since the advent of the Web in the mid 1990s. But, as the technologies and platforms have continued to improve, the last few years have seen a a significant increase in the use of online learning. Some of these uses look like incremental extensions to the classic classroom, while others, like massive open online courses or MOOCs, are much more disruptive. Let me say a few words about them.
In mid-April I visited the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee (UWM) where I was the keynote speaker at a Workshop on Entrepreneurship and Technology Management organized by Professor Satish Nambisan.
I learned from Professor Nambisan that he teaches most of his courses online, and that UWM has an extensive online program, offering both fully online courses as well as blended or hybrid courses which combine face-to-face classroom with online learning.
As nicely explained in their website, UWM views online learning as a natural extension of their overall educational programs. Students are free to take some courses online, and others in classes on campus. The online program is designed to offer students more flexibility, especially if they work, have family obligations or need to replace travel and on-campus time with online study for whatever reason.
Online class sizes are roughly the same as physical campus classes. The professor posts the course material, including assignments, on the course website at regular intervals. The online course material can take many forms. Nambisan, for example, uses PowerPoint slides. For each slide, he records his accompanying comments, which the students then listen to as they go through the online slide presentation.
Students work closely with the instructor and with other students in the online classroom just as they would in a traditional classroom. There is considerable interaction with the instructor over e-mail and text, as well as over discussion forums. Students collaborate with each other in online group work and team class projects. Nambisan told me that he actually spends more time interacting with students in online courses than in traditional classrooms. Since most students live in the local area, it is always possible to arrange to see a student individually or to meet with the whole class on campus if needed.
Massive open online courses or MOOCs are radically different, as described in this very good 2012 TED talk by Stanford professor and Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller. MOOCs are online platforms offering courses and educational materials, - e.g., videos, slides, documents, and assignments, - to large numbers of people around the world. More than 100,000 have enrolled in a few of Coursera’s classes. In addition to the course materials, most MOOCs also serve as educational social media platforms where students can discuss the course with each other, get answers to questions, collaborate on projects, and so on. The courses are generally free and not-for-credit toward a degree.
MOOCs are quite new, with most being only a few years old. There are no standard practices or business models. Some MOOCs are associated with universities, like Coursera, Udacity, and edX, while others like Udemy are not. Some like the Khan Academy and edX are not-for-profit, while others like Coursera offer free online courses, but are also exploring ways of generating revenue and becoming self-sustaining.
MOOCs will likely evolve in multiple directions. Some MOOCs could be viewed as a new kind of interactive textbook or educational media, where the course material is no longer just something you passively read, listen to or watch, but offers you the opportunity to interact with the material, explore it, be tested on how well you understand it, get help when you need it, and so on. In addition, some of these MOOCs can also be viewed as educational social media platforms, where people engage in discussions on the educational material and help each other learn, with or without the presence of teachers or coaches.
Some MOOCs will focus on work oriented learning activities not related to course credits or degrees, including training for new jobs and continuing business and professional education. MOOCs can also play a major role in personal lifelong learning to help us learn new skills and new subjects throughout our lives.
In a recent NY Times Week SundayReview article, Two Cheers for Web U, the author wrote about his experiences with MOOCs. He took several courses from different providers, and graded his experiences along multiple dimensions. The courses were not taken for credit or for business or professional objectives, but rather for the author’s desire to learn new subjects. The overall experience got a B, and the only grade below a B- was teacher-to-student interaction which got a D.
It’s likely that MOOCs will be more successful in learning situations where individual self-learning and collaborative learning are sufficient and student-instructor interactions is less important, such as continuous education in business and personal lifelong learning in general. But, they may be less successful in situations where student-instructor interactions are an important part of the learning process, including courses for credit toward a degree. While those online environments will like embrace some of the leading edge MOOC capabilities, they will have to preserve key aspects of the classroom experience, especially the opportunity for students to interact with the instructors.
My friend and former IBM colleague John Patrick has been enrolled in the Doctor of Health Administration program at the University of Phoenix, a pioneer in online education offering a wide variety of degree programs. John has been writing about his doctoral journey in his blog, where he observed:
“I have been an Internet advocate for [over] 20 years. My basic tenet has been that the Internet provides power to the people and one of the many areas in which this is true is education. Whether it is computer assisted instruction, e-learning, distance learning, or the latest craze of massive open online courses (MOOCs), the concept is the same - to enable people anywhere in the world to learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn it, and use whatever device they want to learn it on. While evangelizing the power of the on-line environment, I also embrace the validity and need for meeting in person. . . Supplementing the e-learning program with periodic residencies provides an excellent way to enhance the learning process, leverage the learning, and extend the network of fellow learners and faculty.”
The good news is the considerable innovation and experimentation now underway to significantly transform learning. Over time, we will learn more about the potential and limitations of different online learning applications. I am hopeful that over time, these efforts will significantly expand the number of people with access to quality learning at reasonable costs.