As I have argued elsewhere, education resembles a service more than a product. The characteristics of a service are that production and consumption are simultaneously. Yet, education is special, in the sense that sharing is non rival; it has this characteristic in common with information and knowledge. When you teach something to someone, the knowledge is doubled in the sense that you both have the knowledge, whereas in the case of a rival service or product the seller transfers the use of the sold good over to the buyer. And sometimes the process of education increases the knowledge of the teacher throughout the process.
The linkage between educational production and educational consumption is broken by the usage of distance learning. Instead of standing before a class delivering a lecture, the teacher designs a course, taking into account the perceived problems of students. In Open Education, Moocs or otherwise, students will be more diverse than in traditional education. To quote Andrew Ng
Throughout the entire MOOC creation process, educators must constantly be student-focused, figuring out what is the most useful content for their students to experience next. With no admissions office, on-line students are vastly more diverse than the students in a typical college classroom. They vary in educational background, learning ability, and culture. Students are also at different points in their life, and range from teenagers to working professionals to retirees, and may have different learning goals. Educators have to make classes accessible without underestimating student ability.
This could be interpreted as the hypothesis that good distance education requires better teachers than face-to-face education because of both the distance (making their didactical skills explicitly available) and the heterogeneity of students.
A misunderstanding with regard to ODL is that on-line education is less expensive than face to face education. Experience shows that the costs of developing high quality distance materials is more expensive than developing a classroom lecture. However, the deliverance costs of distance education are less than those of the classroom lecture. Having made some calculations for a program we would develop in collaboration with traditional f2f-educational partners, we estimated that the break even point between the two methods was around the 60-100 students; below this amount of students, the higher development costs of ODL were not compensated by lower deliverance costs in comparison with the costs of the face to face situation. Of course each course can have a different break even point, but as a rule-of-the-thumb 100 students is a save number.
Part of these higher development costs is caused by breaking the direct linkage between teacher and student. In our experience at the Dutch Open University, the classroom teacher can partly be replace by high quality materials, partly by offering distance tutoring (email, webinars) and partly by organizing meetings between experts and students. In this sense I do not agree with the caricature Bob Samuels sketches in Inside Higher Ed, describing ODL:
The web also creates the illusion that all information is available and accessible to anyone at any time. This common view represses the real disparities of access in our world and also undermines the need for educational experts. After all, if you can get all knowledge from Wikipedia or a Google search, why do you need teachers or even colleges? In response to this attitude, we should recenter higher education away from the learning of isolated facts and theories and concentrate on teaching students how to do things with information. In other words, students need to be taught by expert educators about how to access, analyse, criticize, synthesize, and communicate knowledge from multiple perspectives and disciplines.
As we all know, there is a difference between data, information, knowledge and competences. The facts and figures resulting from web-research have to be put into a context to be understood. However, there is a world of difference between the facts and figures of the CIA Worldfactbook and ODL. And even within ODL we can make a distinction between simple components offered as Open Educational Resources (OER), full OER-courses as by Saylor.org, taped lectures and assignments (Moocs) and the distance courses as developed and offered by the Open Universities and similar institutions.
Each of these resources or courses, free or paid for, is designed within a certain didactical context, whether you agree with the chosen method or not. The free availability of information and data on the Internet should not be perceived as a treat to teaching, but as an advantage, at most a challenge when there are conflicting opinions on subjects.
I think that more free available information demands more (educational) experts to provide contexts and meaning to this avalanche of data. However, it still remains to be decided in which context the traditional teacher of Samuels is better than the on-line teachings in ODL. This does not only (and perhaps not even mostly) depend on the costs of producing education, but on the nature of the competences to be learned, but also on the economical and social situation of the learner. As Amanda Ripley showed us, ODL-courses can play a major role in the development of poor learners in developing countries/regions, or the underprivileged in richer countries.
However, as we see in the Netherlands, it are not only underprivileged or remote learners who profit from ODL. There are individuals studying degree programs to further themselves; there are also individuals and groups studying a single object or course because of a gap in their former education.
And agreed, in some situations, the “canned” teacher or peer support will not be enough. Other kinds of tutoring should and can be offered without relying on f2f support alone.
So from an international and even a national perspective on economic and social growth, distance education can be a good investment. Yet, good distance learning will not come cheap, unless there are very large groups of students interested in following the same subject at the same institution; putting the Massive in Moocs. Question is why educational institutions should participate in these programs.
“He sees open, on-line courses as benefiting the university in three ways: by providing content — and therefore potential courses — that the university doesn’t offer, such as languages or highly specialized topics; by meeting demand that exceeds what the university has resources for, such as for some introductory classes; or by supplementing what faculty members do in the classroom. The technology could also allow for more flexible scheduling. Georgia State serves a high number of low-income students who often have to work, as well as nontraditional students who might have other demands on their times”.
So, ODL’s including but not exclusively Moocs, can be used to involve non-traditional groups in education (low-income, working). It can make education more efficient by providing education at lower costs and similar or higher quality and -assuming that more institutions participate- broaden the choices for students by collaborating in ODL, accepting each other courses and credits. However, openness may be taken equivalent to free, but it will still demand a lot of effort (and costs) to develop good quality ODL.
Another interesting feature is that open distance education either on paper or through the Internet is available for more than a quarter of a century. The correspondence education goes back to the 1800’s, the open universities were developed in the second part of the last century.
Open educational resources as a concept emerged in the 1990’s, the first projects were about the same time. Yet, the discussion on electronic and open learning as a disruptive mechanism to education is only started with the emergency of the first Moocs and their hosting companies as Edx an Coursera. From a business economics perspective, it is interesting to know if this has to do with the reputation of the providers, the acceptance of social media and openness or has their popularity to do with their commercial potential which is perceived but not yet realized?
On another note, I don’t think that Moocs are a true disruptive innovation to education as some argue; but that’s for another blog.