Educational Startups Part Deux

I was amused to hear American Public Media’s Marketplace proclaim yesterday that “online learning is the next big thing.”  Really?  You’ve just noticed?

Again, they were featuring Coursera and Udacity and discussing their approaches to online education, namely that top notch universities are putting free content on their websites to offer to folks around the world that cannot afford to attend Stanford. The argument that was being made is that the traditional needs for certification and accreditation are decreasing, while the need for real education is increasing, so if they don’t offer credits or degrees…it won’t matter.   Students will be “educated” and will be able to land better jobs. I really wish that Marketplace had taken a more informed and educator driven view, rather than tech driven, on this phenomenon.

Well, yes, and resoundingly no. In my view, training is a subset of education.  You are trained in skill sets, and it is widely agreed upon that many employers, especially in tech fields do not really care how you get your skills as long as you can demonstrate capacity in them.  See, that is what degrees are supposed to do.  This is why we have assessments. Educational assessments demonstrate that you have achieved mastery of a skill to a certain level. This mastery is measured by a variety of means, which are normally designed by…yes…subject matter experts.  You are never going to convince me that a student peer review is a sufficient replacement for the feedback of a subject matter specialist.  And I would argue that claims which suggest this are misusing and potentially misrepresenting  these studies and the actual, important role of peer review in the classroom.  There have been some good critiques of this process made by Audrey Watters over at Inside HigherEd.  If you read the comments, the student experiences are very telling.  It seems as though this strategy will need some refinement.

So now students will pay for a certification after taking classes at Udacity.  How do we really know what that means? How will employers know what that means? Will they have to attempt to absorb the pedagogical statements on their website to determine of the student has actually been well trained? Will they even understand the context for these methods? I’m not being snarky here, I really want to know what they are selling. I also want to see more education professionals and fewer computer geeks on board.

I know there are people out there who are really enjoying the educational offerings of these startups.  I think they potentially offer some great things, and for a genuinely education starved planet, I am always grateful for awesome content. I am also totally happy to support busting the broken models of the ivory tower to provide more genuine opportunities for learners and scholars. But let’s not sacrifice real education and sound pedagogy for a quick buck.  Online learning already suffers from that reputation.


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Online Educational Specialist