Higher Education Needs a Rethink to Train Tomorrow's Workforce

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Why you should care

Because the days of purely on-campus, four-year college careers are numbered.

Anant Agarwal is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the CEO of edX, the online learning destination founded by Harvard and MIT.

The ways in which the nature of work is changing beyond our control necessitate a more flexible education system, with “students” no longer being defined just as 18-to-22-year-olds on college campuses. In this era of Netflix subscriptions and Blue Apron dinner deliveries, it’s high time we embrace an education system that’s flexible, accessible and affordable, whether it’s by streaming classes onto our laptops at home or by hitting the pavement to get to class.

Today, students go off to college at age 18, spend four to six years there, graduate and go to work, often tens of thousands of dollars in debt. And if they dare to go another route, by postponing or breaking up their years of attendance, they’re often considered unsuccessful dropouts. There has to be a better way. Higher education is ripe for transformation — one in which technology will allow online education to become as relevant and compelling a choice as on-campus education, leading us to blended learning where online and in-person education coexist. The key to this future vision? Massive open online courses (MOOCs).

Programs like this are breaking down the traditional barriers of higher education — getting away from the “one size fits all” view.

MOOCs are not a new concept; they have been around for nearly six years. But the potential of MOOCs to educate large numbers of people in a scalable way at very low marginal cost is still incredibly important, relevant and meaningful, and just beginning to be appreciated. The next phase of MOOCs, and the innovation that we’re really excited about right now, is courses and programs that offer pathways to credit at a college or university by blending the best of online and in-person programs.

To offer credit-grade MOOCs, online learning providers must have a platform with high academic integrity — one that maintains high standards and facilitates rigorous assessments. This could include integrating virtual proctoring, hand grading and peer grading, as well as innovative, rich assessments that go well beyond multiple choice. New partnerships between universities and online platforms must also be developed to support such innovative models.

One fine example of a credit-grade MOOC program offered on a credit-grade platform is MITx’s Supply Chain Management MicroMasters program, which was the pilot program for the MicroMasters initiative offered on edX. From this group of MicroMasters learners, who completed their credentials in June 2017, MIT has admitted 40 students into the traditional on-campus program. These MicroMasters students will be able to complete the on-campus master’s program in half the time and at half the cost.

This is such an exciting initiative. Programs like this are breaking down the traditional barriers of higher education — getting away from the “one size fits all” view. As more colleges and universities begin to accept MOOCs for credit, online learning options will create modularity and offer students more options.

There are three ways in which these new, innovative approaches can come to life by blending the best of in-person and digital delivery:

Fully Online Delivery with Blended Credentials

Fully online, stacked-credential master’s programs are a big innovation in online learning. The groundbreaking Georgia Tech Online Master of Science in Analytics, in partnership with edX, enables learners to earn a graduate degree for less than $10,000. Accepted students complete a MicroMasters credential, which is about 30 percent of the degree. While some will be able to enter the workforce with that credential, others of these graduates will then funnel into the full master’s program, where they will complete additional courses online to graduate from that program. This unbundling of the full master’s degree into a MicroMasters component allows more learners more options and access to education and, in turn, successful careers.

Online-While-on-Campus Delivery

MIT recently conducted an experiment where it offered a fully online version of its popular on-campus Circuits and Electronics course to on-campus students for credit in an attempt to help students facing scheduling issues. The results? Students not only performed well but also reported feeling less stress and having more flexibility. Many other universities have begun toying with this online-while-on-campus delivery, which will inevitably pave the way for more schools to look at how this type of coursework can benefit both students and faculty.

Online-to-Campus Delivery

Online credentials with a pathway to campus credit is another blend that is not only impacting the delivery of education, but also admissions, as it supports an inverted entry process. The Global Freshman Academy and the MicroMasters program, both available on edX, are examples of this blend. It lets universities include in their evaluation of degree applicants a student’s performance in an online credential program, which signals an applicant’s commitment to learning and demonstrates an applicant’s ability to tackle rigorous content and succeed in an on-campus program. Students also benefit from an inverted admissions process because they are able to try and complete coursework in a field at low cost before committing significant time and money toward applying for and enrolling in a degree program.

These approaches to delivering high-quality education are just a few examples of how education is being transformed. Much more potential from MOOCs remains to be unlocked, and I look forward to seeing and working to share this evolution.

OZY’s educational wing, OZY EDU, is touring the nation’s colleges to bring important conversations into the classroom. First up: The Future of Work. We’re exploring how everything from automation to the gig economy is reshaping work, and how the education system can keep up. Read more.

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