Editorial: Online innovations in higher ed prompt praise, concern

Last modified: Monday, August 19, 2013

The University of Massachusetts Amherst’s first Massive Open Online Course — known by the shorthand term MOOC — was characterized by some officials and faculty as an experiment in bringing education to a wider audience.

We like experimentation, for it leads to progress. And we’re glad to see UMass and other Valley schools approaching MOOCs with caution. This is a controversial teaching style for a reason.

A MOOC is a non-credit course organized as a series of video lectures available to anyone with an Internet connection, with student assignments and discussion sessions accessed through a secure Web page. With one professor for 1,000 students, people seeking course help are often encouraged to find it by working with classmates in online forums. Most MOOCs are free — for now.

MOOCs have been hailed in some quarters as the future of higher education and decried in others as a threat to in-depth classroom interaction that has long defined the college experience. In a recent column for the Gazette, “The computer ate my professor: Bricks for the elite, clicks for the rest,” Smith College professor Donald Joralemon expressed concern that MOOCs and similar online education efforts will become a way for people who can’t afford the skyrocketing cost of attending a physical college to get a higher education.

On average, students who invest in a traditional education are far more likely to complete a course than those who enroll in a MOOC. For example, in Inside Higher Education’s “MOOC Moment” edition, the publication notes that for a 2012 Duke University biology MOOC, 12,725 students enrolled, but only 346 took the final exam.

“Those who can afford to do so will probably still send their children to the elite institutions that stubbornly adhere to the old educational model,” Joralemon wrote, “those who can’t will log in to learn. We will convince ourselves that this isn’t inequality by trumpeting the scholarly achievements of those whose lectures are made accessible at low cost. Get the best, but pay the least. It’s the digital big box store for higher education.”

MOOC proponents point out that the online classes have high dropout rates because they are easy to sign up for and they’re free. The courses attract all types of people ranging in dedication from casual to committed. It’s understandable MOOCs have a higher dropout rate than four-year colleges and universities.

Supporters also stress that the classes offer free education. People can take a class with a Harvard, Yale or MIT professor who would have otherwise been out of reach.

These arguments would be fine if MOOCs were going to stick around as a free educational augmentation, but that’s not the objective. The goal with most MOOCs, we believe, is to eventually make money and earn students college credits.

There are already some mega MOOC providers — organizations that partner with existing colleges and university to bring MOOCs to a wider audience — out there working on this: EdX, Coursera, Udacity and Udemy. The biggest of them, Coursera — which has orchestrated MOOCs with 100,000 students — plans to sell its MOOCs to colleges that will use the online classes as material for credit-bearing courses and students will eventually pay $30 to $250 for a course certificate of completion, according to “MOOC Moment.” As a point of reference, a 3-credit course at Holyoke Community College starts at around $250.

These quick, accessible and, at least for now, free classes can be an excellent gateway for students who want to test the academic waters before jumping in to a major or enrolling in a college. They can give people a base-level education and perhaps inspire them to seek additional knowledge.

So, while we like UMass’ experimentation with MOOCs, we hope the university proceeds with caution. MOOCs are a single tool on the academic workbench. It sounds like UMass understands this. In an interview with the Gazette, John Hird, senior associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass, said: “We don’t see this as some kind of future of learning, but as a way to inspire innovation.”

High volume, low cost: it’s fine for a warehouse, but not for a college education.


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