Commentary
2/5/2013
10:52 AM
Keith Fowlkes
Keith Fowlkes
Commentary

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.



Massive open online courses, more commonly known as MOOCs, are all the rage in higher education. Respected institutions from MIT to Stanford are jumping on the bandwagon, offering MOOCs to thousands of people across the world. But why? I have a theory.

Just a couple of years ago, higher education was under a firestorm of criticism for the high cost and perceived low return of a college degree. Congressmen and governors across the nation were screaming about the rising cost of a four-year degree and looking into how the nation's youth were actually benefiting from this costly endeavor. I could argue that this outcry was a diversion from budgetary problems in government, but I digress.

So what's the best way for higher educators to divert the firestorm of controversy away from them? Find a way to "give back" to society in a big way! MOOCs showcase an institution and its best faculty while giving the masses the opportunity to 'virtually attend" that institution for free, with a minimal amount of university investment. It's exciting and innovative!

If my little conspiracy theory is true, the scheme is brilliant. The subject of the rising cost of higher education has been reduced to a whisper, while positive press about MOOCs is everywhere. Thousands of people are "enrolling" in these courses," taking everything from English literature to circuits and electronics, and online platform providers such as Coursera and Udacity are attracting millions of dollars in venture capital.

Is This All Bad?

So aside from my little theory about societal manipulation, are MOOCs all bad? Absolutely not. I subscribe to the notion that all educational media are positive for society. Thousands of people, young and old, are getting an intellectual benefit from these online courses, and it's a phenomenal service to society. We all need a bit more intellectual stimulation to spark our creativity and motivation to make positive world changes.

On the provider side, any time that colleges and universities can share the knowledge, research and wisdom of some of the best minds, we're all better for it. It's the classic win-win for faculty and students, and it is great PR for institutions of higher learning.

But (you knew a "but" was coming), MOOCs will not bring down higher education as we know it. They will not replace brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. Will I be telling my children in a few years to get on their computers and get to work on their bachelor's degrees? For those who really want a full and rich education, my answer is a definitive NO.

Traditional higher education is more than going to class, listening to a professor, doing homework and taking tests. It's about building learning relationships with faculty and other students. It's sometimes about learning to live independently, without a parent to protect and guide the individual every step of the way. Traditional higher education is about taking required courses that you may never have taken otherwise and discovering things about yourself and the world in life-changing ways.

A statement made by Susan Holmes, a statistics professor at Stanford, hits a nerve. "I don't think you can get a Stanford education online, just as I don't think that Facebook gives you a social life."

Higher education involves much more than the knowledge you learn in class. It's about the development of the whole person: emotionally, socially, intellectually and academically. The exchange, textual discussion and regurgitation of knowledge simply demonstrate that you generally know a subject. The full college experience prepares students to communicate, collaborate, contemplate and, sometimes, negotiate topics on many different levels, both in writing and orally. (Obviously, my traditional education has also prepared me to group words together that end in "a-t-e.")

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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