Software
Commentary
2/5/2013
10:52 AM
Keith Fowlkes
Keith Fowlkes
Commentary
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MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion?

Massive open online courses can evolve into a phenomenal educational asset, but they're not the best educational method for most students coming out of high school.

MOOCs may be valuable as a supplement to classroom study, as well as a source for continuing education. But it's not the best educational method for most students coming out of high school.

Online learning may become a solid option for students who don't have the financial means to attend a traditional college or university. And accredited online programs may be a good fit for students prepared for graduate work -- those with developed writing, public speaking and time management skills. These programs may also be a good option for working people who need more flexibility in their schedules. No question, many online graduate programs are acclaimed for their quality.

Hurdles To Acceptance

One monumental hurdle is for these MOOCs to get accreditation so that students can apply their credits toward degrees. Accreditation agencies such as the Higher Education Commission and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools are tightening up their requirements for all college and university online programs and courses. Issues we're dealing with at my institution include new guidelines for 24/7 student technical support and new policies for test proctoring and student assessment.

Are the major institutions ready and willing to go through the expense and pain of accreditation for courses with hundreds of thousands of faceless students? Are these automated courses with thousands of students, assessed based on multiple-choice and short-answer tests, as rigorous as what students get in a traditional classroom? Would I grade the thousands of online tests by hand to make the program better? My answer is no to all of these questions. The last one might have an expletive somewhere in my answer.

Some theorists say MOOC providers may try to sidestep traditional academic accreditation altogether, choosing to give "certificates of completion" instead. I see two damaging effects to our nation's educational system if we go down that path.

The first is a meandering sense of educational standards, an extension of what we have now with some of the non-accredited, for-profit online degree programs. I'm comfortable with the high academic standards required by our national accreditation agencies and feel comfortable with the high bar they've set. But I'm not familiar with the standards set forth independently by Muddy Fork Online College & Taxidermy Institute -- hopefully a fictitious for-profit school. You get the idea.

The second issue is how the perceived or real differences in the educations delivered by brick-and-mortar institutions, online schools and future MOOC certifications will affect our society. There are already "haves" and "have-nots" when it comes to higher education, but will this differential get exacerbated when a graduate from an accredited and established college or university competes with the graduate of an online program for graduate school admissions or a job? I fear that introducing MOOC certifications to the mix will only create another level in a growing national educational caste system.

Will MOOCs Stick?

Peter J. Stokes of Northeastern's College of Professional Studies has said: "The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis. [It's] just throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks."

If MOOCs do stick, I think this "demo period" of free education for the masses will end and prices from MOOC providers will start to rise. MOOCs are a grand experiment -- the question is whether they evolve into a phenomenal educational asset or just become a terrible diversion.

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Keith Fowlkes
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Keith Fowlkes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/11/2013 | 9:37:02 PM
re: MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion?
I agree. I do not think it is a bad thing at all. I do think something very good might come out of the MOOC movement. I'm just concerned about what it could do to hurt the overall educational system in our country if not thought out by people more interested in students than in money. Thanks for your feedback, Chris!
paul020
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paul020,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/26/2013 | 5:29:43 PM
re: MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion?
regarding Hurdles to acceptance. The US currently doesn't accept most degrees from other countries, even if the teaching staff were trained at US institutions. So online isn't really that different from getting a European or Asian degree. The going rate for university education in India or Hong Kong is much less than the US, but you can't argue they are not as good. It is like the computer saying "garbage in, garbage out", a non-intelligent student in an expensive Ivy League school isn't better than an intelligent student in a less expensive state school.

For all the people who talk about the "college experience" and "growing up without mom & dad" - how about putting all the kids in army boot camp or insert-your-favorite-fortune-100-company new hire program? it's not the job of higher education to train kids how to leave the nest. People have done this for 1000's of years without government intervention.

Why should the government pay outrageous student loans? The banks don't allow homeless people to borrow $100,000.00 to buy a porche or mercedes, yet you can easily get $250,000.00 to study "Liberal Arts" or "insert-your-favorite-non-career-degree-here" with no hope of the person ever earning enough to make the loan payments. Just like we have house appraisers and the banks will only loan 80% of the value of the house for a mortgage, there should be degree appraisers who will only loan the amount the degree is worth. And when there is a glut of lawyers or teachers, the degree isn't worth the paper it is printed on, so no money should be loaned. What happened to the days where kids worked to pay their way to school, and employers paid their employees who wanted to better themselves? Why all this government handouts so private colleges can earn giant $$$ ?

There is no logic that would allow lending any amount of money for a degree that doesn't guarantee the student will be able to pay back the money - and there are too many lawyers and they can't pay back their loans. Let's get bigger state schools, have more kids live at home or in commercial housing that they can afford, not in party dorms. Kids shouldn't be spending money on alcohol and drugs until they pay off their education, otherwise they don't deserve to be in school - how hard is that a lesson to teach?
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
2/8/2013 | 7:49:17 PM
re: MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion?
I'm not sure why Professor Stokes quoted here so opposed to throwing spaghetti against the wall. Spaghetti throwing has brought us a lot of disruption technology and business models -- entrepreneurs see a problem, start a company to deal with it, find out they're completely wrong, so they keep trying new things til something works. It seems impossible to me that remote learning (and testing) won't be part of how we get higher ed costs under control. Why is an AP class delivered in high school and vetted by an exam worthy of college credit, but an online course would not?
MyW0r1d
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MyW0r1d,
User Rank: Strategist
2/7/2013 | 3:33:36 PM
re: MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion?
Glad to hear out of the traditional education one is able to string together words with "a-t-e" suffixes, but my online experience provided for the same interactive collaboration. Yes I missed the frat parties to build rapport within the brother/sisterhood, abuse small animals or emotionally challenged classmates, buying exams or papers written by someoneelse, but I honestly don't feel as others may that they were indispensible in the process. The online experience also included mandatory coursework with such highlights as manipulating (sorry, crafting) your resume for the best effect. Having experienced both, the only real difference is the social stigma (that undeclared fraternity) of brick and mortar degree holders which, perhaps out of envy and of having had to attend resident courses, attempt to degrade or stigmatize the quality of online coursework. The article even provides evidence of as much in the statement by the Stanford professor (hopefully Stanford is not planning profits from their online courses with this type of faculty support). I do agree that no single course can provide the benefit to the student which is obtained only through a series of study (oops, online provides this also).

So MOOCs are arguably as beneficial as singular in residence courses, but unless one can demonstrate it is part of a larger, accepted and structured program of study, the certificate of completion probably won't get you a cup of coffee and they will still be looked down upon by the traditional degree holders until gradually the percentages change and the MOOCs outnumber the brick and mortar. Finally, an opinion of the accreditation system having analyzed their criteria is that they are more directed to the business aspects of higher education and guaranteeing the financial viability of the institutions than providing quality of the individual academic courses. The only comparable model that comes to mind are the rating agencies in the financial world (S&P, Fitch, ) which are subsidized by the companies they rate and since 2008 the quality that provides is evident.
jmichon601
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jmichon601,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/6/2013 | 6:49:32 PM
re: MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion?
Sorry, but you couldn't be more wrong. Bricks and mortar colleges will be decimated by MOOCs. The cost differential is just enormous, and the convenience factor for students will dominate any supposed advantage of custodial education. Sure, a few will still choose that route---just as Rolex still sells watches. But I use my cell phone or a cheap watch to tell time, not a $10,000 luxury good. The important thing is to get the federal gov't. out of the higher ed subsidy business. There's no reason that taxpayers should shell out $100 billion annually for loan subsidies, especially for junk degrees.
Janet F
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Janet F,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/6/2013 | 3:59:45 PM
re: MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion?
You raise very good points about what MOOCs can do and cannot do and the hurdles we have to consider. I hope it provokes some discussion!

There are also some legal and policy issues for libraries that the Association opt Research Libraries set out in their initial "Issue Brief" http://policynotes.arl.org/pos... And, I'm sure there are many more.

One of the difficulties that we also have in talking about online courses, online programs, and MOOCs is the tendency to roll them all together in the discussion. But there are different needs and issues in the three overlapping categories.

It's certainly an evolving arena.

I particularly liked your "fictitious" school, Muddy Fork Online College & Taxidermy Institute. I think I'll sign up for a course!
Andrew Hornback
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Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/6/2013 | 4:53:40 AM
re: MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion?
Keith - I really get what you're saying, especially as a Coursera member. However, I also recall my days when I was taking telecourses through the University of Utah (back in the mid-90s). What's the real difference here? The technology has advanced, absolutely. Just because my U of U classes were affiliated directly with a brick and mortar institution of higher learning, does that mean that what I get from my Coursera classes is any less valuable?

I honestly see this as a "try before you buy" sort of movement, in that students get a chance to a) try out the course material, b) try out the course delivery method and c) try out the time management techniques required to actually work on the courses before going to a "real" school and investing "real" money - especially given the looming "student debt bubble."

Do I think it's perfect? No or more realistically, a not yet... but, given that, in my case, the alternative option would be to leave my professional position (aka day job) and head off to Columbia to finish my degree in Astrophysics - every time that idea pops into my head, I hear my landlord saying no. So, for the time being, I'm figuring out how to squeeze in a couple of courses here and there - one serious (Data Analysis from Johns Hopkins) and one for fun (Digital Sound Design from Emory University).

Haven't seen anything from Muddy Fork yet - but if I do, I'll let you know.

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
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