Look out for the MOOCs: Online Education Goes Viral

Image: American Independent
Image: American Independent
Image: American Independent

Feel like diving into cryptography or computational molecular evolution? Interested in improving your public speaking, refreshing your basic algebra, or exploring sustainable food systems? If you answered yes to either of these questions, or want to tackle almost any other academic subject, then you might want to sign up for a Massive Open Online Course. These “MOOCs,” an increasingly popular form of distance education, are free and open to the public. Through these courses, teachers and students all over the country and the world are ditching desks and blackboards in favor of short online video lectures, automated quizzes, and discussion boards, and in the process they may be revolutionizing higher education.

Birth of the MOOC

Associate Vice President for outreach at Penn State University, Wayne Smutz, has written,
“Penn State has been involved in distance education since 1892, when students took courses through the Post Office’s rural free delivery service, and in online education since 1998.” But since then, distance education—an attractive, convenient alternative to the classroom—has fast-forwarded into the internet age.

According to a 2012 TIME article, MOOCs came on the scene in 2011 when Professor Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University opened his graduate course to anyone, anywhere. Over 160,000 students from 190 countries enrolled. Other universities and nonprofits soon followed suit. A recent EDUCAUSE briefing states that “22 of the institutions listed in US News’ top-25-best-college-rankings for 2013 offer MOOCs or similar free offerings.”

These online courses, geared toward the computer-literate Generation Y, are open to an essentially unlimited number of students, free of charge. A 2012 New York Times article, titled “The Year of the MOOC,” listed one course provider that enrolled 370,000 students, and another that reached a total enrollment of 1.7 million.


What do MOOCs mean for the future of youngsters pursuing higher education? Many in the MOOC world – from creators to faculty to students – profess that MOOCs are a tremendous tool of democratization in higher education. Students unable to afford astronomically high college tuition can access what some consider courses of equivalent quality and rigor. While eager, lower income students might cheer for free college-level classes, this spells trouble for many university pockets. As a TIME reporter puts it, MOOCs are “good for cash-strapped students and terrible for cash-strapped colleges.”

However, Frank Mulgrew, an expert in online education, argues that MOOCs mostly cater to the already well-educated and interested. “Most students,” he writes, “require access to highly interactive and fully developed online learning opportunities to grasp the concepts being presented.” MOOCs’ one-size-fits-all approach is bound to exclude many of the same students who already struggle to get into universities or achieve their degrees.

In addition, while the potential diversity of a MOOC’s student body – participants of all ages, from all over the world – can be enriching to a class’s online interaction, it can also be inhibitive. Students with little or no prior knowledge of the subject matter might try to engage in discussions with well-versed students who are just brushing up on the material.

And what implications do MOOCs have for faculty and the future of teaching itself? Many MOOC professors—especially those who spearheaded the movement—are well-known, highly regarded faculty. But, as “The Year of the MOOC” points out, MOOC students favor professors who teach well over professors with impressive credentials and research backgrounds. Such preferences and trends in distance education may eventually influence what is most sought after in teachers both online and in the classroom.

Comic: ivygateblog.com
Comic: ivygateblog.com

MOOC’ing Forward

The jury is still out on MOOCs. Supporters contend the diversity within both the course subjects and the student body is revolutionary. And many laud the egalitarianism of offering high quality, wide open courses. Still, research regarding the pedagogy employed by MOOCs, as well as their effectiveness and sustainability, hasn’t reached a verdict.

Smutz argues that MOOCs need to be majorly reworked before they can begin to compete with traditional college courses. After all, there is little to no individual interaction between lecturer and student in MOOCs. Rather, students organize themselves into study groups and review their peers’ assignments.

A 2013 New York Times article reports on an even worse problem: over 90% of the hundreds or thousands of students enrolled in most MOOCs drop out. Inadequate incentives to complete courses might account for such statistics; most institutions are still unwilling to let MOOCs count toward a degree.

online-education graph

This may be changing, however. Penn State, which retains 90% of its MOOCers, has incorporated intensive advising programs which help track students’ progress and difficulties throughout the duration of the course. At the same time, Penn has tried to maximize faculty-student and student-student interaction.

Lastly, MOOCs do not yet have a standard business model for how they will generate income. Up to now, the institutions offering MOOCs have born the majority of the cost, but whether they will continue covering these expenses remains unclear.

Undoubtedly, education experts and innovators will continue to improve the distance learning model and the technologies it employs. And criticisms of the project will likely develop at the same pace. For now, the future of higher education – in the classroom and in front of the computer – remains to be written.

For more information and to see a list of MOOCs, see openculture.com or Technoduet.

Daniel Malakoff

By Daniel Malakoff

Daniel is a senior editor at DashBurst, writes fiction and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh.

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