Two years ago, massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, burst on to the education scene when Stanford University offered a free introductory course in artificial intelligence that attracted more than 120,000 students from around the globe. MOOC enrollees now run into the millions, and more students are coming aboard every day.
The excitement of online education is redefining academics in the 21st century and providing the impetus to rethink two issues: How students acquire and retain knowledge, and how they can apply what they've learned to succeed in the workplace.
In a technologically driven world, information is available at the click of a mouse and cutting-edge knowledge changes every second. Technologically savvy education that engages students will enable them to master knowledge online, in a classroom, through independent reading or in other ways.
Collaborative learning, discussion, case-study analysis and mentoring are essential for developing critical thinking, problem-solving and strategic-planning skills. The best classrooms enable students to master a body of knowledge, think critically, solve problems, and eventually become valuable contributors to the workforce and society.
That brings us back to MOOCs. Let's distinguish between MOOCs and online education. MOOCs -- offered by sites including Coursera, Udacity and Edx -- enroll millions of students around the world, and their founders have received multi-million-dollar investments from venture capitalists. But they may prove to be nothing more than false idols.
While it's impressive to offer a class to 100,000 students, it is unclear whether this is education or a new form of entertainment. There's no dynamic interchange between students and faculty in a MOOC. You may love the History Channel, but you don't expect a college degree for watching it for 1,000 hours. MOOCs don't offer degrees, either, just letters of completion for a fee.
In contrast, properly structured online education, and the new technologies to support it, offer the opportunity to reduce the cost of higher education and involve students in fresh ways. Examples can be found among the many courses being offered at public and private colleges.
New software offers dynamic ways to present static material. Gaming technology is being used to model business scenarios. Students can start and run a fictional business using mobile apps or develop back-end technology needed to run such an enterprise.
Three-dimensional images that can be "unwrapped" are being used in medical schools and undergraduate biology classes. New collaboration tools enable students from across the street and around the world to think about problems together and help faculty members inspire students and mentor them, as opposed to merely lecturing at them.
Data analytics, including quizzes embedded in the learning material, help students gauge their mastery of course material and learn at their own pace.
Blended learning, combining online, flexible coursework with class meetings via Web conferences or in an actual classroom, can further enhance learning.
And because most online courses are more likely to have 25 or 30 students rather than 25,000 or 30,000, faculty members can direct learning as they guide students to become the next generation of leaders, thinkers and innovators.
Online education holds the promise of providing education customized to the different ways people learn, potentially increasing engagement, mastery and creative intelligence. Research suggests that online learning can be particularly powerful because material can be presented with multiple instructional methods.
Although MOOCs may have provided the kick that higher education needed to re-invigorate the way we educate students, they could turn out to be an unkept promise.
The future of higher education is not a few faculty members directing hundreds of thousands of students, but rather, tens of thousands of professors educating more than 6 million American students in online courses in ways that provide direction and encourage interaction among everyone in the class. Controlled, focused online education is a godsend. MOOCs may sound like a great idea, but the result will not be education.
Marian Stoltz-Loike is vice president of online education for Touro College and dean of Lander College for Women.