Philippa Thomas Online

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The Growth of the Virtual Campus


It’s come for the journalist. It’s come for the publisher. Now it’s coming for the lecturer too – the bracing blast of online competition is sweeping through the campus.

Is nothing sacred in the world of those who deal in words?

Of course not. Good thing too.

I took a class with Clay Shirky at Harvard which riffed on his classic book on the internet revolution, “Here Comes Everybody”.

He’s one of those thinkers whose essays land like a stone in still water – setting off ripples every which way. I particularly enjoyed his latest blogpost for personal reasons. I’ve had the great luck to go to Oxford and Harvard, but the single best course I ever did was the Arts Foundation at the Open University.

So here’s Shirky’s blogpost on a new paradigm for higher education – the rise of the MOOC, or the Massive Open Online Course. There’s also a detailed critique of Udacity.

He points to the fundamental imbalance in what’s on offer on campus.

“Every college provides access to a huge collection of potential readings, and to a tiny collection of potential lectures.”

And he provides an elegant take on what’s beginning to right that balance.

“The possibility MOOCs hold out isn’t replacement; anything that could replace the traditional college experience would have to work like one, and the institutions best at working like a college are already colleges. The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled.”

There are already so many good examples. Like the outstanding Michael Sandel on “Justice”. The traditional lecture course was spoken about in tones of awe when I turned up at Harvard a couple of years ago. It’s burst out beyond the Cambridge lecture theatre, sparking a BBC Reith Lecture series in just one incarnation, and taking on a new life as a communal experience available online for all.

Shirky rightly points out that we’re not facing the replacement of like with like. But with the new comes an existential threat to the old – or at least, the mediocre. As he puts it,

“In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.”

I just love surfing serendipidity. It was of course internet browsing that prompted these thoughts on internet browsing.

Katie King called my attention to the buzz around MOOCs in her own (much more thorough) blogpost, “MOOC-ing around with Higher Education”.

She writes, “What is interesting about these new courses and the companies facilitating them is that they are truly massive, with tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people registering from around the world. And what’s even more interesting is how many of the big elite players are jumping in and how quickly”.

I may be engaging in idle speculation – or, I hope, in conversation – but Katie’s putting her money where her mouth is and enrolling. Check in next year for her updates from the world of the MOOC.

And before I go, another point which may be glaringly obvious, but I’m trying to think it through.

There’s a parallel here, isn’t there, to the fashionable agonizing about the death of professionalism journalism?

My first reaction to both is that whatever raises our game collectively is A Good Thing – in the field of news reporting, bring on the bloggers and the tweeters.

My second thought is concern about the harder material that takes time and money to gather, that’s significant but not sexy, where many traditional media outlets are haemorrhaging funding. The groundbreaking newspaper investigation may be the equivalent of the challenging college course – not glamorous but essential to create the scientists, the engineers, the philosophers, who are central to our future. Neither can be done well on the cheap.

And the third thought – which is where I’ll stop for now – reverts to optimism. Shirky notes that many MOOCs come out of Stanford and Harvard and MIT. He references an argument from Ian Bogost that MOOCs are marketing for elite schools. Couldn’t you turn that around, that they’re an opportunity for the best to do the right thing – to provide better access?

And that’s the classic straw for the professional journalist to grasp. The line goes, there must be thousands of people online who are addicted to Twitter, or can’t live without a Facebook feed… who are finding that the sharing of links works to whet an appetite for news. Doesn’t that make – in the long run – for a bigger potential audience for original, high quality, indepth journalism.

Doesn’t quality win?

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 30 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, psychology, reading, trekking, and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, coaching @positivecoachi3, and life & travel on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “The Growth of the Virtual Campus

  1. The OpenCourseWare (OCW) Consortium is a free and openly licensed digital publication of high quality college and university‐level educational materials organized as courses. These courses often include course planning materials and evaluation tools and are accessible to anyone, anytime online.

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