Is Higher Education higher?

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I met with an INSEAD  MBA graduate today. Knowing I work in the online learning industry, he asked the usual first question – Do you think MOOCs will replace the traditional higher education system?

I guess to start with, we shall look at why higher education is higher and why it exists in its current format.

The education is called higher, why? Because the people entering higher education is higher in they intelligence? Because the university education will build a broader base for students as a human being, with higher responsibility to the general public? Because such education allows its graduates to get into a professional world which pays higher salary? A lamb knows how to walk and integrate into the wild nature since day one. But us, we need to spend the first 22 years to learn how to eat, how to sleep, how to survive, how to read, how to learn and how to be part of the civilization.  It is a long production process and are all these years necessary?

The second question is that why we need at least 3 to 4 years in the higher education environment. Why it is designed this way that we need to take classes together, eat together, stay in the same dorm. What we eventually learnt? Is our university life meant to allow us explore our interest and passion or to deepen our knowledge and expertise into a very specialized sector so that we can be ready as part of the functioning society when we step our of the university gate? Do we learn more about a certain topic or do we learn in a broader sense, to understand the world, discover ourselves, cultivate and strengthen certain values, build certain characters? Do we learn how to deal with others, maybe more importantly, how to deal with oneself.

The third question is how we learn in the campus? How much of the learning delivery overlaps with what an online system can replace. When we walk with some one in the corridor and talk about a book we read, a film we watched, a song we like, is it part of the learning? is it more important or less so? When we observe how others talk, think, act, reflect, change facial expression, change attitude, does that count as part of the education? When we have conflict with others, argue, storm, comprise and resolve, is that considered part of the mission of higher education?

Without a consistent definition and clear articulation of these questions, no one can come up with a simple answer – would MOOCs replace higher education. We cannot create another higher education without a sufficient understanding of what is it, why it came to exist and how it is delivered.

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