In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion in the international media about the prospect of massive open online courses ('MOOCs') supplanting the traditional university campus. However, in the April 2014 UK edition of Wired magazine, our Creative Director & CSO came across a novel approach that purports to combine the best of both the virtual and the physical: 'blended' learning. Anant Agarwal – no less a figure than the president of edX, a joint venture between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – posits that in the near future, students may study for one or more parts of their degree in a different mode from the established norm of campus-centred learning.
To illustrate his line of thinking, Agarwal gives an example of undergraduates in a US-style four-year college programme: these students could study the first year of their degree in MOOC format; switch to a conventional 'offline' degree system for years two and three; and spend the final year of their undergraduate years back in a MOOC environment.
There are doubtless many potential advantages to this blended approach – the most obvious one being sheer costs savings for what is in many respects an historically impecunious generation – but could it actually work? After some contemplation, we at Mediolana think that at least three steps need to be taken in order for this type of learning combination to take off:
More Social Learning. If students are to spend half of their undergraduate degrees in relative isolation, the other half should contain an unusually high degree of social learning opportunities to compensate for this shortfall. These do not necessarily have to constitute endless compulsory lectures or forced group work, but students should know that if they want to meet up with others – not least professors – for academic purposes, every facility is made available for them to enable this.
Increased Self-Discipline. With on-site social interaction off-limits for 50% of the entire course and a world of distractions awaiting them in a media-saturated epoch, it is inevitable that a significant number of students will slip through the cracks of ennui and entertainment – in particular, we can see the potential for a dramatic drop in attainment levels from years three (on-campus) to four (MOOC). Both students and institutions need to make provision for this – guidance as to how to manage this kind of learning has never been more vital.
Qualitative Familiarisation. What are the differences between a graduate of a four-year degree programme with 100% on-site learning, and a graduate of a similar if not identical programme where half the course is spent away from a university building? Are there any differences? Does one format consistently produce better results over another? Where does a mentorship model – a hybrid of MOOC and on-site learning described by Alice Bentinck, co-founder of Entrepreneur First, in the same issue of Wired – fit in? All these any many more questions need to be answered before blended learning can be meaningfully evaluated.