Most people agree that the traditional lecture model of teaching is a mess. Some are trying to change it to a form of online “competency based education,” while others are trying to ban laptops in the classroom. Five years ago the future of education was going to be the Massive Open Online Course or MOOC, which most people now acknowledge was a massive failure. Even Sebastian Thrun, who founded an entire online university, has thrown in the towel, describing his own company’s courses as “a lousy product.”

There are lots of reasons given for the 93 percent dropout rate, but one of the main ones is that students didn’t really get much out of it. We have known since the "Wizard of Oz" that a diploma is as important as a brain.

That’s why a new pilot program from MIT is so interesting. It's a sort of MOOC hybrid; students wishing to study for a degree in supply chain management can take the first semester of a degree course and take an exam (at a proctoring center where their work will be monitored) to earn what MIT calls a MicroMaster. If they want to continue, students can apply to get the full masters degree. There are a lot of advantages for both students and the university. According to MIT Technology Review,

Yossi Sheffi, who directs MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics, said he hopes to get more of the “cream of the crop” of students from around the world now that the online classes will give administrators detailed data about each student’s aptitude.

But it works for students too, who get to learn in advance if they're really interested in the course before making the big commitment.

“This approach basically inverts the traditional admission process. I believe that’s a very powerful concept,” said MIT’s president, Rafael Reif. “Applicants do not have to hope that we guess right about them, because they have the chance to prove in advance that they can do the work.”

Schools get better information about their prospective students (a huge problem), and students get a better idea about whether they're interested in or suitable for the program.

This is such a good idea. As an adjunct professor at Ryerson University School of Interior Design, I have sat in on interviews and looked at portfolios of prospective students, and it's really a crapshoot. As a prospective architecture student, I probably would have learned a lot earlier that perhaps I should look at another line of work.

Carl Straumsheim of Inside Higher Ed quotes the Chair at a school that’s big on MOOCs:

Richard DeMillo, the Charlotte B. and Roger C. Warren Chair of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said the MicroMaster’s path is “yet another indication that the old models [of higher education] are vulnerable. My guess is that once learners find out that this is a better, more effective learning experience, they will come pouring in.”

students at rysersonMy students, looking at their Macs instead of me. Sigh. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

The old models are indeed vulnerable. Every January I stand up in front of a new crop of students and face a wall of white glowing apples and think that there has to be a better way to deliver a message and figure out if they learned any of it. This hybrid of online and in-person teaching may well be a step toward a better experience for both professor and student. Perhaps MOOCs just went too far. This is less open, less online and definitely a lot less massive — and it might just be the best of both worlds.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.