On Oct 18, 2012, Time magazine published an article by Amanda Ripley on the impact of massive open online courses on higher education. It was one of many recent reports on this innovative method of teaching. I first heard of MOOC from the charismatic Curtis Bonk, of Indiana University and author of The World is Open. Bonk goes around the world evangelizing the concept of open education and teaching a MOOC course on instructional design and educational technology.
The movement has grown far beyond Bonk's field of educational technology. Through mega courses, the MOOC movement is making academic superstars out of often obscure professors of physics, statistics, poetry, differential equations or even applied cryptography.
Open education is exciting, or even hallucinatory, when reporters create in readers' minds images of a yak herder in Tibet learning poetry from Yale, or an 11-year-old girl in Pakistan learning introductory physics from Stanford.
As tuition fees rise, such alternatives to traditional education are tempting. Teachers also get excited about such teaching methods. But some harsh realities loom over open education enthusiasts. Even in the United States, open education is not an open range without fences. Online course provider Coursera changed its terms of service to restrict students from Minnesota because a law of that US state seems to pose legal risks to it.
Innovative offerings do not necessarily cannibalize earlier ones in their entirety. While online or hybrid courses enter the mainstream, they have not replaced traditional educational offerings. Multimodal education is going to be the new norm for colleges and universities in many parts of the world.
No innovative medium of education carries an innate advantage in producing the desired educational outcome. Each innovative method must eventually compete in terms of quality and cost. China's open university experiment may be a great example for the world to study as technology-driven educational innovations unfold.
Before the Internet, in 1979 to be precise, China created a massive "Broadcasting and Television University" system. As the original name suggests, the system depends on the use of radio and television to deliver lessons to people. One would assume that it must have gone out of business in this age of the Internet. But it is still alive and well. Now renamed the Open University of China, it has a vast network which includes the Central Open University in Beijing, 44 provincial open universities and 46,724 "teaching stations" across the country, according to the OUC website.
I asked the editor of Open Education Research, Wei Zhihui, what OUC can offer to the rest of the world. Despite Wei's humble stance that her journal focuses more on sharing cases of Chinese universities learning from others, the Chinese system does offer something fellow open education researchers and practitioners can learn from.
The most impressive thing about the OUC system is its down-to-earth pragmatism. OUC does not make wide claims about how cutting-edge it is, or how it is going to change the world. It focuses more on figuring out where it may work and where it may not.
It does not compete head-on with the elite universities. Instead, it keeps looking for its own market niches: students from economically depressed areas, faraway places underserved by traditional universities, rural students, or employees seeking continuing education. In Shanghai, for instance, the Open University focuses on community needs. The system also embraces new methods of teaching as technologies evolve. These and many other pragmatic approaches have secured OUC a foothold in the market, even though it has lost its initial technological advantage and large pool of students.
I am under the impression that MOOC advocates focus excessively on how large their virtual classes are and how faraway their students can be. Eventually, students come to institutions that exhibit strength, not size. Instead of sensational reports on educational revolutions and re-inventions, the industry might consider the more humble approaches of OUC. Like people, part of being a smart institution is knowing what you cannot do.
The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.