The concept of MOOCs interest me because they are (or seem to be) in line with the purest form of education, it’s free and for the curious. The reason that I add curious is that it is a new enough concept that you still don’t quite know what you’re getting when you sign up. Also, you’re likely taking the course for love of learning, because you’re not getting the largest benefit you pay for in post-secondary: the degree.
To take a step back, I’m not saying that people don’t learn things in university, because we know that’s not true. But along with the knowledge acquired, the piece of paper we get at the end is also very important, and I would argue a large part of what we pay for.
The actual degree that is acquired is a short-hand for credibility. A reputable institution which has proven proficiency in teaching a certain subject has vouched for you that you have learned a significant enough amount of that subject to be useful in that field. In today’s world that is important.
If we were to be completely honest, all the materials we cover in an undergrad degree (and I would guess the majority covered in higher-level academic pursuits) can be found in books and online. Though could you imagine going to an employer and saying, “I never went to university, but have read a lot about fluid dynamics. I would consider myself an engineer.” I don’t think that it would go over too well.
Side note: The exception to that seems to be Elon Musk, who essentially became a rocket scientist by reading a lot of books. That guy is awesome.
MOOCs are a little bit different, though. While there is no cost to the courses, along with no defined path through them, or degree at the end, they still have something a little bit more. Along with the reading materials, you are receiving instruction. Not only is there instruction, but there is also interaction with other students. And this is all run through reputable institutions.
Does it really compare, though?
I read an article on LinkedIn about a woman who was working through an MBA equivalent in the form of MOOCs, which is to say on the cheap. It was very interesting to me that she seemed to be able to take the majority of courses that a graduate level degree requires and I’m even a little interested in starting to try it on my own.
Sure, there is a case being made that this woman is acquiring a comparable level of knowledge, but will this equate into the same benefit of a fully sanctioned MBA? To me it all comes down to complexity of communicating what you have accomplished.
Let’s assume that someone who has completed the program that this woman is proposing applies for a job which lists an MBA as a requirement. How will the applicant be able to communicate effectively to the person screening the resume that they, in fact, have taken the equivalent of an MBA to a solid enough extent that the screener will then take the risk of putting a seemingly unqualified candidate through to the next round?
On the rare chance that the applicant is granted an interview, how will they convince the interviewer, or panel, that they are as qualified as an MBA thanks to their self-study? Even if they are able to do that, how can the person who signs off on the hiring be comfortable taking a gamble on how the new employee when there are likely others with verifiable degrees who could take the position? Will customers and shareholders understand why they made the new hire and be comfortable with it?
I don’t think I have to belabor the point any longer. While a cool exercise, I think the MOOC MBA (at this point in time, at least) is more about the joy of learning than actually getting ahead. Not to say that in the future something more legitimate won’t emerge, but if anyone aspires to follow in Ms. Pickard’s footsteps, they should likely do so with their eyes open.
As I said at the beginning of the post though, I like the idea of MOOCs as pure learning and think I’m going to sign up for one. I still stand by my belief that self improvement shouldn’t stop and this seems like a great way to have some structured learning at little to no cost.