January 2, 2013
MOOCs And The Future Of Education
One of my regular topics includes MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. These are available online either for free or for a nominal charge. The potential for MOOCs to change how education is delivered in the United States is pretty open at this point. One article, The End of Universities by Nathan Harden presented a few predictions, some of which are interesting and others I’m not so sure about.
One idea is that what we call a college degree earned over four years of on site will morph into certified knowledge specializations by picking and choosing online course content from name brand institutions:
MIT is the first elite university to offer a credential for students who complete its free, open-source online courses. (The certificate of completion requires a small fee.) For the first time, students can do more than simply watch free lectures; they can gain a marketable credential—something that could help secure a raise or a better job. While edX won’t offer traditional academic credits, Harvard and MIT have announced that “certificates of mastery” will be available for those who complete the online courses and can demonstrate knowledge of course material. The arrival of credentials, backed by respected universities, eliminates one of the last remaining obstacles to the widespread adoption of low-cost online education. Since edX is open source, Harvard and MIT expect other universities to adopt the same platform and contribute their own courses. And the two universities have put $60 million of their own money behind the project, making edX the most promising MOOC venture out there right now.
Parts of the article discuss classes with 100,000 students. This isn’t a projection. It’s happened apparently with Professor Andrew Ng’s Stanford class in machine learning in the fall of 2011. Obviously not everyone in Professor Ng’s class was graded in the traditional sense. But that got me thinking about the mechanics for a more institutionalized version of a MOOC. Harden made these points:
Students can intermingle with faculty and with each other over a kind of higher-ed social network. Streaming lectures may be accompanied by short auto-graded quizzes. Students can post questions about course material to discuss with other students. These discussions unfold across time zones, 24 hours a day. In extremely large courses, students can vote questions up or down, so that the best questions rise to the top. It’s like an educational amalgam of YouTube, Wikipedia and Facebook.
While I don’t think much of something described as an amalgam of YouTube, Wikipedia and Facebook as an alternative to a traditional college experience, I agree that undergraduate programs are as likely to leave a student in enormous debt as much as graduate school. There has to be a better, cheaper alternative. MOOCs with a credential at the end may be that alternative. Formal alternatives will require standards for those credentials and standards have associated costs. Conceptual subjects are not necessarily amenable to auto-graded quizzes. I can imagine some courses with thousands of students requiring multiple graduate teaching assistants, perhaps hundreds of them, to work with groups of students answering questions and grading papers and exams. I can’t imagine a higher-ed social network filling all of that need. I’m interested in how schools might plan for this kind of eventuality.College, graduate school, law school and the like are becoming out of reach to many due to cost and capacity issues. MOOCs may be able to replace that structure ultimately but it’s going to take an awful lot of thoughtful planning. [MG]