Digital innovation won't "disrupt" learning

Students will always need professors

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) ease access to information, but do not negate the need for professors, argues Gavin Moodie, an adjunct professor at RMIT University in Australia, in University Affairs.

When edX president Anant Agarwal launched his MOOC platform in 2012, he called it the "single biggest change in education since the printing press." Using that lens, Moodie examines the effects of the printing revolution on Western European university lectures and libraries to predict the future impact of MOOCs.

The teaching-learning evolution

Before the printing press, medieval universities offered two types of lectures: cursory, where professors read texts aloud so that students could hand copy them; and explanatory, where professors posed problems and questions based in the text.

Cursory lectures faded from Oxford University by 1584 because the printing press dropped book prices, enabling students to purchase instead of copy the texts.

Many thought the printing press would also make explanatory lectures irrelevant because students could now teach themselves about any subject—but the explanatory lecture survived. Moodie argues that the explanatory lecture persisted because students still needed help from professors in two critical areas:

1. Managing their studies and pacing their work, and

2. Identifying their own areas for development and improving on them.

The role of the library changed as well, from a mere holder of reference books to a navigator guiding academics and scholars through the new plethora of texts. Similarly, libraries today have also adapted to help students improve their digital literacy.

Redefining the academic library: Managing the digital migration

Today's digital content makes information more readily available, as the printing press did in the 15th century. But throughout, students continue to need help processing that information—regardless of the form it comes in.

MOOCs ease access to learning, but contain "all the disadvantages for inexpert and immature learners," evidenced by high attrition rates. Instead of "disrupting" higher education, says Moodie, online courses will "augment and improve" teaching practices within universities (Moodie, University Affairs, 10/1).

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