Traditional colleges often struggle with limited space availability in popular (or even core curriculum) courses. Higher education costs in the U.S. have sky-rocketed in recent years. A recent USA Today article reported that costs to attend a 4-year public university rose a staggering 15% between 2008 and 2010. To make matters worse, many graduates that are coming out of college are unable to find jobs while being saddled with enormous amounts of debt. Higher education in the U.S. is broken.
An Emerging Alternative
The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) paradigm offers a rare opportunity to remedy these situations along with many others. The fact that the term includes the word massive illustrates the fact that such courses can be taken by a virtually unlimited number of students. This is revolutionary in its own right. The problem right now is not with student enrollment numbers, but the fact that organizations currently offering these MOOCs aren’t actually accredited to issue regular course credit to those that do the work. In other words, they don’t translate into college-level work that can be applied towards a degree. While some MOOCs are geared towards students who might want to learn more about a specific topic, most of them are essentially recreational at this point. Even so, individuals are learning new things, in an exciting way, in record numbers…so this is a good thing.
The other issue is (of course) about money. There is no clear indication of how organizations such as Coursera, Udacity, and EdX will sustain their operations in the future. Equally unclear is if/when they start charging students, whether or not costs will be significantly lower than they are today. Plagiarism and other areas need to be addressed as well before these programs become viable degree options. However, existing online schools have found ways to deal with these issues and I’m sure these organizations will as well. Despite the obstacles that remain, the recent popularity of online learning has proven that learners are seeking alternatives to traditional schools in a big way.
The Logical Progression in Education
In the near-term future, MOOCs could ultimately transform the way that education works. Anyone who has done research on the recent success of MOOCs are familiar with the fact that some courses have had tens of thousands of signups. Last year, Google unleashed an open-source MOOC-building tool, and Stanford unveiled Class2Go with two courses. MOOCs are expected to continue to rise in popularity in 2013. While all of this may seem astounding, the idea of virtual teaching has been around for years. For instance, colleges have made use of radio and television in the past to provide instruction to students irrespective of their geographical location. MOOCs are simply the next logical step in this evolution given the rise of the Internet in recent years.
Despite the rise of popularity in online learning in recent years, many traditional institutions have been reluctant to offer full degree programs to people who never step foot inside of a classroom. For some degrees this makes perfect sense. No one would want to issue a medical license to someone who has been taught solely online. On the other hand, it seems relatively innocuous to incorporate distance learning into degree programs in a variety of other areas. As long as standards are created to ensure that learning occurs as designed and appropriate, there is no reason online education should continue to take a backseat to classroom-based learning in the future.
I view MOOCs as the 21st century descendents of the old broadcast instruction programs of the past. As education moves towards this new model, the work that students have done on their own will certainly become more important. Students might be able to customize their own education plans based on all of the courses completed that apply to a particular field. In fact, if MOOCs become more of an integral part of an education plan, credits could become less important. Instead, colleges could focus on how much work students have done in a particular field. Once enough coursework (and even practical application) has been completed, a degree would be awarded.
A Changing Paradigm
Considering that we live in the information age, elements of data are being created at a greater rate than at any other point in time. Aggregation is one of the strongest tools that MOOCs bring to the table. In the near future, software could bring together different bits of information and aggregate it together into a single source for delivery to students. Lesson plans and lectures would be a thing of the past, since information would be produced in real-time. Instead of a rigid curriculum, students could learn from a number of sources and receive a truly well rounded education. And that’s the point here. This isn’t about transforming education for the sake of transformation. This is about making education more accessible and affordable to learners while ensuring that they learn what they need to know in order to be successful in the workforce and society.
What Do the Critics Say?
Critics often point to the fact that online programs permit students to enroll with little or no admissions standards. I maintain that many of these critics are those that are directly threatened by the MOOCs and the promise they hold for their own futures. If I’m the president of a traditional school and seeing my enrollment numbers dwindle because I’m against online learning, than naturally I’m going to be against MOOCs (or any other similar change). While admissions requirements have been important in the past, in the future everyone with an Internet connection will have access to higher education. If they need foundational courses, they will take them online just as they’ve done in the past. This is they way it should be. In fact, today virtually anyone can sign up for courses with EdX and other MOOC providers. That’s a good thing.
Critics also point to the completion rates of these courses. Because they are free, many people sign up for the courses and then fail to complete them. But consider this. If you have 50,000 people sign up for a course and only 5% complete all of the work, you still have 2,500 people that finished, right? How many traditional classrooms does it take to teach 2,500 people? And how many of those 2,500 people would have missed out on the chance to learn the material otherwise? Those in education that would argue against this type of success need to seriously consider a new field.
Education for Everyone
In the future, with less stringent admissions criteria and much lower costs, students will be able to earn accredited certificates or degrees in record numbers. These individuals can take what they’ve learned to create new businesses or perform better in their own jobs while ultimately becoming lifelong learners. This in turn will hopefully prompt society to transform right along with them. I would argue that along with a more educated population comes a better society. And if we’re not working towards that objective, what the hell are we doing as a species anyway? Whether MOOCs will transform education remains to be seen. There are still a lot of unanswered questions. Regardless, they are a step in the right direction. They have successfully highlighted the need for change in higher education and perhaps more importantly, that individuals are seeking new learning options in today’s increasingly connected world.
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