MOOCs Changing the Way We Think About Higher Education

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by Helen Hu

A new wave of massive open online courses is evolving at a dramatic pace — and unleashing some soul-searching about higher education along the way.

These MOOCs were pioneered in Canada by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. They gained popularity not even two years ago in the U.S. after a free online course in artificial intelligence given by Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun was swamped with students.

Thrun and others began launching MOOC ventures offering courses in science, math, humanities and other subjects taught by professors at major universities, including elite ones. People around the world signed up, sometimes in the tens of thousands — even more than 100,000 — for an individual course.

Using technology to quiz students and stimulate interaction among them on a vast scale, Coursera, Udacity and edX, the three primary MOOC ventures, suddenly seemed to point the way to a new era of learning.

MOOCs began to grab the attention of many policymakers, not just educators, as a potentially effective but less expensive way to teach a big audience.

Online education has been around for decades at many universities. For-profit institutions such as the University of Phoenix started online programs as early as the 1980s. But these new MOOC ventures sparked huge interest because of prestigious names such as Stanford, Harvard and MIT, the sheer numbers and diversity of their enrollment, newer technology and the fact they offer courses for free, educators say.

They came on the scene amid a continuing economic recession and climbing tuition rates.

While these new MOOCs may still be seen as a way to learn for learning’s sake, talk now is about offering them for credit, which would contribute to the pursuit of degrees and even jobs.

“It’s gone from 100,000 people learning about AI (artificial intelligence) to ‘I want Math I, and I want to get credit for it,” says Dean Florez, president of the Twenty Million Minds Foundation, which pushes for affordable higher education.

Coursera is by far the biggest MOOC venture, featuring more than 300 courses taught by professors at 62 universities around the world as varied as Stanford, Duke, the University of Maryland, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the University of Barcelona. Courses are being taught in English, as well as French, Spanish, Chinese and Italian.

Started by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, two computer science professors at Stanford, Coursera recently reported 2.7 million participants from nearly 200 countries.

Even though MOOC students generally don’t get credit for the courses, they’re using the courses to beef up their credentials, according to Julia Stiglitz, business and community development manager at Coursera.

Lectures are split up into short segments, interspersed with quizzes. Students work at their own speed, watching segments over and over if necessary.

Some courses have teaching assistants, but students helping each other is considered a big plus, with participants often answering questions quicker because they’re in the same time zone, Coursera officials say. Students also evaluate each others’ work.

No one-size-fits-all fix

Some educators urge caution about MOOCs as a learning tool, saying though they may be cheaper to produce than traditional courses, they aren’t necessarily for every student and should be closely studied.

Critics say the courses may appeal mostly to motivated, high-achieving students and be most effective for those types of students, despite MOOC ventures’ boasts that they make learning more accessible.

Some educators worry students don’t get enough personalized attention online. But others point out that many universities hold huge classes taught by graduate students at hefty tuition rates.

MOOCs’ high attrition rates also have been criticized. Stiglitz says Coursera deliberately makes it easy to sign up, and many people shop around or want to watch one video on a subject and move on.

In a major step for MOOCs, the first five courses were evaluated and deemed worthy for credit by the American Council on Education in February. About 2,000 colleges and universities consider the organization’s recommendations in determining whether to use online courses.

McGuire says MOOCs are going in the wrong direction, especially for students such as hers, who tend to be poor and need help with basic skills. They need to learn how to learn first, she says.

“They [MOOCs] are very cynical, in a way,” she says. “It’s promoted as a way to reduce costs, but classrooms are already too big. Now you want to increase the volume into the hundreds of thousands?”

At Metropolitan State University in Denver, students are offered a lengthy checklist to help them figure out whether online is for them.

Ned Muhovich, who is director of the academic advising center and has been involved in online education since 2000, says a hybrid of in-classroom and online might be best for some students. He would not advise students who struggle academically to take online courses.

Institutions would only save money with online courses if students can adapt fast enough to learn that way and pass the courses, he says.

A growing trend

In January, University of California leaders vowed to expand online courses in response to a challenge by Gov. Jerry Brown to do so. Founders of MOOC ventures were invited to talk to the officials about what they’re doing.

Online may be the answer to many students in California being forced to wait one or two semesters before they can take oversubscribed introductory courses, which Florez calls “bottleneck” courses.

So many students are older commuters who work during the day, and for them, online is a vehicle to receive credit and move onto other courses, he says.

Academic leaders are trying hard to show they’re gung-ho about online education, especially after seeing what happened to Teresa Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, who was targeted for ouster amid criticism she wasn’t embracing it fast enough.

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University in Washington, D.C., recalls the president of a major university admitted to her that he wasn’t sold on MOOCs, but he was embracing them “because we have to.”

McGuire says universities are focusing on the wrong things in attempting to cut costs. They should demand professors do more actual teaching and use their money on academics rather than frills, she says.

Indeed, the sudden rise of MOOCs has prompted criticism of higher education, which some say is inefficient, slow to change, does a poor job of teaching and retaining students and saddles people with heavy debt.

The Internet tidal wave that shook up the newspaper business and other fields is now hitting higher education, highlighting its weaknesses, educators say.

Although some suspect campuses will close and academics will lose their jobs, Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at ACE, thinks not.

So many jobs will require degrees in the future, she says, that “we’ll need every institution at full capacity and more.”

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