MOOCs: The Future of Higher Education or a Passing Dream?
MOOCs—or massive open online courses—have been getting quite a bit of attention lately, and rightfully so. At their core, MOOCs provide people from all walks of life the chance to learn something for nothing. All you need is an Internet connection, and you’re ready to go.
Essentially, think Khan Academy on steroids and some kind of science-fiction genetic engineering that doesn’t yet exist, and you’ve got a MOOC. Most of the current offerings don’t lead to a credential, but some of them do offer pathways to apply what you’ve learned towards some sort of certification. The most prominent of the MOOCs—Udacity, Coursera, and edX—began with some fairly prominent institutions, such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. Udacity and Coursera operate as for-profit entities, while edX is a nonprofit venture.
One MOOC, Coursera, has partnerships with 33 institutions, including several from outside the United States. Classes vary from “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry” from the University of Pennsylvania to “Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach” from Duke University. MOOCs partner with professors from these institutions, who then form the syllabus and materials for the courses.
Classes at Coursera typically run anywhere from one to three months in length, and lay out a course schedule not all that dissimilar to what you would expect from a brick-and-mortar college. The lectures are all available online. There are course-specific discussion boards to interact with other students and the professor. You have homework and quizzes, which are randomized such that you can keep redoing fresh problems until you achieve mastery. This is actually a significant improvement over traditional education, where you typically only get one shot at the problems, receive your limited feedback from the instructor, and then promptly move on to the next lesson regardless of whether or not you’re ready for it. You also have midterms and finals, where you must demonstrate competency to earn “course credit.”
Of course, much of the history of MOOCs is still yet to be written, but they truly have the power to reshape how we learn and how we look at higher education. They could certainly transform and democratize the college experience in ways we’ve only dreamed of to this point. For one, you could easily envision a day when these courses become the primary means for imparting remedial education, or even introductory-level classes. Since these classes are typically large, lecture style courses as it is, there isn’t much difference in shifting them online, making them much more accessible to students, at a significant cost savings.
Along similar lines, this could be a way for students to take courses that are within their major program, but aren’t offered at a time when the student needs them. Or, if we’re truly letting ourselves dream, you could also imagine an entirely new system of higher education that enables students to cobble together their own programs of study, earn a series of competencies along the way, and have a home institution craft a degree for minimal cost. For employers, this can be a low-cost way to advance the skills and knowledge of your workforce.
Alternatively, there’s another history that could easily be written. In this version, state and federal regulations make it increasingly difficult for MOOCs to exist and provide more valuable services to students. Accreditation steps in from there, making it impossible for MOOCs to offer actual college credit or even transfer credits to traditional institutions, totally negating whatever potential they have. Due to this inability to expand and provide more services, MOOCs cease to either be profitable or sustainable, and inevitably fade to irrelevancy. Or, they will just plain go out of business.
We’ve unfortunately already started to see exactly this happen. In October, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education informed Coursera that they were violating state law. According to Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst with the Minnesota, Office of Higher Education, “This has been a longtime requirement in Minnesota (at least 20 years) and applies to online and brick-and-mortar postsecondary institutions that offer instruction to Minnesota residents as part of our overall responsibility to provide consumer protection for students.”
The state eventually walked back their enforcement of the law, but we should probably consider this the opening salvo in what will undoubtedly be a war for the soul of higher education. And make no mistake; MOOCs likely face stiff resistance from the establishment.