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Free Online Courses Mean College Will Never Be the Same

They're the biggest innovation in higher education in years, but are they a threat to small universities and community colleges?

woman student on laptop

Will going to class become quaint? Photo courtesy of Coursera.

Depending on who you’re listening to, Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, are either the greatest boon to the spread of knowledge since Gutenberg cranked his first press or the biggest threat to learning on campus since the coming of cheap beer.

No question that they are the most disruptive innovation to come out of universities in a very long time, although it’s still too soon to say if that’s “good” disruptive or bad. A quick refresher: Though free online courses, notably through Khan Academy, were already starting to build an audience, the first MOOC by a university professor popped up at Stanford in the fall of 2011 when Sebastian Thrun, also head of the team behind Google’s driverless car, decided that he and his colleague, Peter Norvig, would offer online–and free–their course on artificial intelligence. About 160,000 people around the world signed up.

The following semester Thrun left Stanford–which didn’t particularly like the free part of his grand experiment–and started his own online education service called Udacity. A few months later, two more Stanford computer scientists, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, got venture capital backing to create another online company named Coursera, built around the model of signing up professors from top universities to teach classes. And then last fall, MIT and Harvard anted up, jumping in with a MOOC service they called edX.

A lot of professors who taught in the first wave of MOOCs were effusive about the experience, especially about having the opportunity to reach more than 100,000 people all over the world with just one class. But plenty of others wondered what really had been let out of the bottle, and whether once people got used to the idea of free college courses, how would they feel about the old model, you know, the one involving payment of tens of thousands of dollars.

Views from the front line

So, more than a year has passed since Thrun went to the free side and MOOCs–and the philosophy they promulgate of valuing competency more and time in the classroom less–are clearly gaining momentum.

Last week the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees approved an ambitious program of online education, including MOOCs designed to help students finish their degrees in less time for less money. The week before that, Darrell Steinberg, a leader of California’s State Senate, introduced legislation that would allow students to get full credit for a class by taking a MOOC if he or she was shut out of a course and unable to find a comparable one.

Also, the National Science Foundation has kicked in $200,000 to study a free online course in electronics offered through MIT last year, with the goal of comparing data and feedback from students who took the class online with what was gathered from those who took the same course in a classroom setting.

But a bit of analysis already has been done, in the form of a survey published by The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month. More than 100 professors who have taught MOOCs responded to an online questionnaire. Among the highlights of their feedback:

  • Almost 80 percent said they think MOOCs are worth all the hype–although the Chronicle did point out that the professors most enthusiastic about the experience were more likely to respond.
  • Eighty-six percent said they thought MOOCs would eventually reduce the cost of getting a college degree (45 percent said it would significantly, 41 percent marginally.)
  • But 72 percent said they didn’t think free online students should receive full credit from their universities.

The dark side

It is a noble notion, this idea of first-rate professors sharing their wisdom with knowledge-hungry students around the world, playing the role of “sage on the stage,” as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman put it recently.

In practice, it hasn’t been such an idyllic model. The large majority of people who sign up for free online courses are what Phil Hill, an education consultant who has analyzed some of the MOOC data, refers to as “lurkers.” These are people who perhaps watch a video or two, but then drop out–a lot never get beyond registering. Hill says as many as 60 to 80 percent of MOOC students never make it past the second week of a course.

It’s apparently not unusual for as many as 90 percent of those who sign up for a free online class to drop out before they finish it. In one case, a bioelectronics course offered by Duke University through Coursera, only 3 percent of those who registered made it to the final exam.

Proponents of free online classes acknowledge that a lot of people who sign up for MOOCs are more curious than committed, and with neither a financial investment nor the option to earn credit, they don’t feel a compunction to stick it out to the end. More often now, universities are providing certificates to students who finish a course, for a nominal fee, generally under $100.

For professors, a big part of the motivation to teach MOOCs, according to the Chronicle survey, was the sense that mass online education is inevitable and that it would be wise to get ahead of the curve. Many also said they thought the experience made them better teachers.

But some believe the trend doesn’t bode well for many universities, particularly smaller ones and community colleges. Michael Cusumano, a professor of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, sees a troubling parallel with what happened with newspapers. “Free is actually very elitist,” Cusumano wrote recently in the monthly magazine of the Association for Computing Machinery. The result, he warns, could be a “few, large well-off survivors” and far more casualties.

His worst case scenario is “if increasing numbers of universities and colleges joined the free online education movement and set a new threshold price for the industry–zero–which becomes commonly accepted and difficult to undo.”

Adds Cusumano: “Will two-thirds of the education industry disappear? Maybe not, but maybe! It is hard to believe that we will be better off as a society with only a few remaining megawealthy universities.”

Open season

Here are other recent developments in open online learning:

  • “Like” us if you’d rather not have a mid-term: The first MOOC service based in the U.K., called Futurelearn, launched in December and will be offering classes later this year. Its CEO says that one day people may congregate around online learning courses the way they now do around Facebook.
  • Engineering can be fun! No, really: Brown University has begun offering a free, six-week online course designed to encourage more kids to consider careers in engineering.
  • All MOOCs, all the time: And in Rwanda, a non-profit called Generation Rwanda is moving ahead with a creating a “university” for which all of the courses are taught online by professors elsewhere.

Video bonus: Here’s a bit more on MOOCs in a New York Times video report.

More from Smithsonian.com

How Artificial Intelligence Can Change Higher Education

What Is the Future of College Education?

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