Students will decide whether colleges live or die

The question of whether MOOCs pose a threat of extinction to brick-and-mortar institutions is akin to the argument of whether digital music destroyed, is destroying, or will destroy the music industry. The answers to the latter questions are no, no and no, while the answer to the former is still no.

MOOCs are goosing the educational landscape today the same way Napster and mp3s roused a coasting music industry in the early aughts.

“The paint is barely dry,” wrote Laura Pappano about emerging MOOCs in 2012, “yet edX, the nonprofit start-up from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has 370,000 students this fall in its first official courses. That’s nothing. Coursera, founded just last January, has reached more than 1.7 million — growing ‘faster than Facebook,’ boasts Andrew Ng, on leave from Stanford to run his for-profit MOOC provider.”

The appeal of MOOCs, much like the appeal of Napster and other music-sharing sites, is affordability (sometimes free), access, speed, etc. And while MOOCs will challenge institutions to rethink pricing, delivery and quality the same way the music industry had to rethink its model, online courses will not kill colleges.

For one, issues of quality can hold MOOCs back. Georgia Tech learned this the hard (and embarrassingly ironic) way.

And can a MOOC deliver the comprehensive learning environment hard copy institutions offer?

“There’s also little doubt that lectures delivered online to thousands of students at once, with limited capacity for feedback from educators to the educated, and huge logistical conundrums involved with assuring adequate grading and testing, are never going to be equivalent in quality to small seminars taught by brilliant professors who are able and willing to instigate vigorous classroom debate and keep copious open office hours,” writes Andrew Leonard.

Finally, there will always be students who want to immerse themselves in classes, discussion, organizations and campus life the same way an audiophile wants to talk to a record-store clerk, thumb through the selection and enjoy the art of a vinyl record. And on the opposite side there will always be students perfectly fine with logging in and learning from home and music fans who happily click “buy” on iTunes.

It’s not an argument about which product is better than the other, it’s about which product is better for you.