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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.