Will Free Online Courses Ever Replace a College Education?

28 Jul

Two years into their existence, MOOCs haven’t stolen students away from brick-and-mortar universities. Instead, they’ve become a genre of their own.

Peter Struck, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, stands in front of a special-effects-ready green screen as he records a MOOC on Greek mythology.
[ Matt Slocum/AP ]

By Benjamin Winterhalter

It’s 10:44 am on a Tuesday, and I’m lounging at home in my pajamas, sipping chamomile tea. I am, at the same time, taking a class at Harvard. Professor Gregory Nagy is rhapsodizing about the death of Roy, the cyborg from Blade Runner, and pointing out how certain tropes from his final soliloquy echo important themes from ancient Greek myth. The class is called “The Ancient Greek Hero,” and it’s one of many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) created by HarvardX, the university’s online course production company. It appears, from my limited experience, to be a fabulous class, which comes as no surprise, since it’s based on a well-established in-person Harvard course of the same name.

The videos for this course are remarkably elegant and professional, conveying a certain vividness that lectures at the blackboard sometimes lack. The discourse on Roy’s death, for example, seamlessly cuts to key scenes from the film, as Professor Nagy’s voiceover explains the Greek notion of the “hora” (the “correct moment”). The production values are just as high in a HarvardX course called “Introduction to Neuroscience,” in which filmmakers use high-gloss animation to create a vibrantly wacky clip about cell biology.

HarvardX is one of 29 institutions whose content appears on edX, one of the biggest platforms for MOOCs. The company that is now edX resulted from a partnership between Harvard and MIT in 2012, though each school’s courses are its own.

The main thing that edX provides, beyond hosting space for the videos, is the software necessary to grade—and provide feedback on—student work. This is no small undertaking: MOOCs can have tens or even hundreds of thousands of enrollees; edX alone counts about 2.5 million students since its inception. Typically, however, only about 7 to 9 percent of these students actually finish the course (though, to be fair, many of them don’t ever intend to). Despite the staggering scale, edX’s software provides grades for all of them—not just on multiple-choice quizzes, but also on short-answer items and essay-length responses.

[ Full article available at The Atlantic: ]

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Posted by on July 28, 2014 in MOOCs in the News


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