The growth of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is a development that promises to make significant change in Higher Education. Coming on the heels of a huge expansion of online education, MOOCs have the possibility of changing further the troubled business model of higher education.
Basically a MOOC makes courses available to a wide range of people, often for free. There are a number of major providers that involve courses from a range of universities. This means that you can take a course for free and in certain cases get certification for it.
Higher education provides, among other things, the transmission of knowledge (instruction) and and the granting of degrees (credentialing). While online courses changes the dynamics on the instructional side of
higher education, MOOCs have the potential of changing the credentialing
This is important to the professions because future professions receive their initial status as a consequence of some activity of higher education. Professional schools and professional programs have long been part of higher education (there are exceptions) and what changes one part of the system impacts all areas of the system. Even a casual reader of the Chronicle of Higher Education have seen how this dynamic plays out in professional education.
There are differences between what professional programs do and what traditional academic programs do and those variations must be considered. Large graduate enrollments are common in the professions and unheard of in most traditional disciplines. This has made professional programs the cash cows of universities while traditional disciplines look to their undergraduate enrollments (mostly lower division general ed courses) to support much smaller graduate efforts. Recruiting and marketing is also almost completely different. Most traditional discipline recruit through scholarly networks while professional schools tend to favor graduate fairs and mass media advertising. By the same token, intellectual ability is often not as important as professional suitability as a criteria for student performance. Practica are an important part of most professional education. These conflicts are often difficult to deal with in the traditional bricks and mortar institutions.
If MOOCs develop along traditional lines, it is unlikely that professional schools will be happy with the results. Open education and professional education have a number of conflicting interests and some of those interests are critical to profession building.
There are broader reasons for professions to become involved in the MOOC movement. The boundaries between academic institutions and other aspects of society are becoming more fluid and the MOOC movement can be a major movement in that direction. Learning continues for the life of the professional and this changes the way that happens.
Professionals are, in many ways, the original knowledge workers. This means that there is both a huge initial knowledge base as well as a continued demand for the acquisition of new knowledge. The potential support of lifelong learning in a MOOC environment makes continuing education both easier and harder. It makes the delivery option potentially easier and might support the credentialing function as well (creating an interesting potential conflict between universities and private CEU providers). This potential might be lost or delayed if MOOCs concentrate only on traditional college courses.
Given the consequences for professions and professional education, it is clear that the MOOC movement is potentially important. Two strategies present themselves. First, the professions might use their considerable influence to affect the development of the MOOC movement and the major MOOC providers. This would be difficult because the platforms are already quite advanced and changes might be both difficult and expensive.
While it might seem like a daunting task, a better strategy might be profession specific MOOCs sponsored by professional associations and professional schools. This could support and variety of approaches and needs. It can incorporate professional norms and controls as well as gatekeeping issues.
I make no representation that this will be easy but consider this: knowledge is what separates professionals from technicians. The MOOC revolution can radically change the way that knowledge is transmitted. That can be either a dagger at the heart of the professions or a movement to the bright future that the professions need and want.