Oct. 1, 2012
It’s raising big questions about the future of higher education
By Katherine Mangan
Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke U. and directorco-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory: “The knee-jerk reaction is to say that MOOC’s are going to save us.”
For years colleges have tested the waters of the digital world by dipping their toes into online education,
But with the advent of massive open online courses, or MOOC’s, they’re diving in headfirst.
Led by some of the nation’s most prestigious research universities, new players are signing on each month to teach free, online courses that have drawn tens of thousands of students worldwide.
And while questions remain about how the courses will sustain themselves financially, what value students will derive from them, and how they will affect traditional degrees, “MOOC mania,” as some call it, shows no sign of abating.
“Everyone knows education has to change, and the knee-jerk reaction is to say that MOOC’s are going to save us,” says Cathy N. Davidson, a professor of interdisciplinary studies at Duke University and co-founder of the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. The group, known as Hastac, is a network of people who study new forms of learning for the digital age.
Universities, she says, are under “crazy pressure” to offer MOOC’s, and are too quick to assume that such courses will save them money. At the same time, “with no prerequisites and no boundaries, the freedom a MOOC allows a great teacher is exciting.”
For the academic world, which isn’t exactly known for being quick to embrace change, the past several months have been a whirlwind.
Early this year, several well-known professors broke away from Stanford University to create two for-profit MOOC providers. In January, Udacity was born. Two months later came Coursera.
Sebastian Thrun, a research professor of computer science whose free online course in artificial intelligence attracted 160,000 students worldwide, says he co-founded Udacity to develop a MOOC model in which students learn by solving problems, not by listening to a professor tell them how to solve them.
“Online education rightfully has a bad rap because in the past it’s been trying to replicate the classroom experience at a small fraction of the cost,” he says. “Even today most MOOC’s are videotaped lectures followed by a quiz, which is commendable but doesn’t go far enough.”
His company, Udacity, signs contracts directly with professors and offers courses mainly in computer science or related fields. Last month Colorado State University’s online global campus announced that it would accept transfer credits from students who passed an introductory computer-science course offered by Udacity, as long as they also passed Udacity’s proctored exam. Coursera offers courses taught by professors from more than two dozen well-known institutions, including Princeton and Stanford Universities and the Universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania. Colleges that sign contracts with Coursera will receive a share of any revenues their courses might generate.
The playing field expanded this spring when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which revolutionized the field of online learning with its decade-old OpenCourseWare project, rolled out its first course offering a certificate for completion. The course was part of a new project, MITx, that gives users free access to the online-course platform, where they watch videos, take tests, and link up with other students. In May, Harvard University joined MIT in an extension of that program, which they called edX. The universities each committed $30-million for the program. The University of California at Berkeley became the third partner in July. Students enrolled in edX also have the option to take a proctored exam.
Meanwhile, some colleges and individual professors are offering MOOC’s on their own. Some have signed with the for-profit Udemy, which encourages professors to charge a small fee. The revenues are shared by the professor and the company.
Kevin Carey, director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation, believes elite universities are feeling pressure to jump in. A reluctance to do so—at least forcefully or quickly enough—appears to have been one of the main reasons that the University of Virginia’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, was forced out in June. Virginia’s governing board reinstated her a few weeks later, after a public outcry.
Before she was ousted, Virginia had been considering offering courses through Coursera, but Ms. Sullivan said she did not want to dictate such a move without faculty support. Board members exchanged e-mails expressing their fear of being “left behind” if they didn’t move quickly enough. Since her reinstatement, the university has signed on with Coursera.
One of the most important developments in the evolution of MOOC’s is the move toward credentialing. Some programs, including the free online education group Khan Academy, offer “badges” to show that students have mastered certain skills. Mozilla, which makes the Firefox Web browser, is designing a framework that lets anyone with a Web page issue badges.
Certificates would be another step toward a credential to stack up against a traditional university degree. The big question is whether employers who are used to scanning résumés for evidence of completed degrees will value certificates and badges earned through free courses. If so, many people believe these programs could pose competition for traditional degrees.
Skeptics say a handful of badges doesn’t show that someone has a well-rounded education or the critical-thinking skills needed to prepare for a career that will change over time.
But online-education advocates like David A. Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, says badges or certificates tell an employer than a candidate has certain concrete, specific skills. That could be particularly helpful in sectors like manufacturing, where hundreds of thousands of jobs go unfilled because employers can’t find enough skilled workers, he says.
“A typical job description says that a candidate needs a B.S. in marketing or its equivalent,” he says. “That ‘or equivalent’ language allows employers to fudge when they find someone who’s really good who doesn’t have the degree.”
Aside from offering evidence of job skills, free online courses could provide another strategy for reducing costs and increasing access in states where higher-education budgets have been cut, advocates say. Thomas K. Lindsay, director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based think tank, points to a study released in July by Bain & Company that concludes that one third of the nation’s colleges and universities are financially unsustainable. Expanding online classes is key to keeping costs down, he says.
“A dozen years ago, I taught Plato and Aristotle and had to be dragged kicking and screaming into online education,” he says. “But that was back when it consisted mainly of a talking head on a video screen.” Since then technological advances have made the online-learning process more interactive and in many ways more personal than the large lecture classes typical of many introductory courses, he says. And while some classes will always work best when students can meet face-to-face in small groups, others lend themselves to online or hybrid formats that reduce costs without compromising quality, he says.
But many questions remain, including how universities can make money from MOOC’s so that the projects don’t become a financial drain. Ideas being floated include charging students for credentials or selling corporate recruiters lists of top-performing students—a proposal that could raise privacy concerns. Cheating is another big worry; Coursera recently added an honor code after discovering widespread plagiarism on homework assignments.
Then there’s the question of how to grade papers in courses that can attract tens of thousands of students, many of them non-native speakers of English. MOOC’s also suffer from high dropout rates, but because they are free, most educators find that less worrisome than attrition from tuition-charging colleges.
In August several hundred educators gathered online to ponder such pedagogical and institutional issues in a free course that was nicknamed the “MOOC MOOC.”
Offered by Hybrid Pedagogy, a digital journal about teaching and technology, the six-day class attracted about 600 participants and 2,000 onlookers, according to Sean Michael Morris, director of educational outreach. Ms. Davidson, of Duke, was among those peering in on the course. Her conclusion? Just as customers shopping for a restaurant can peruse online reviews, “We need a Yelp for MOOC’s.”