Online courses may not be changing colleges as their boosters claimed they would, but they can prove valuable in surprising ways.
By Justin Pope
few years ago, the most enthusiastic advocates of MOOCs believed that these “massive open online courses” stood poised to overturn the century-old model of higher education. Their interactive technology promised to deliver top-tier teaching from institutions like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, not just to a few hundred students in a lecture hall on ivy-draped campuses, but free via the Internet to thousands or even millions around the world. At long last, there appeared to be a solution to the problem of “scaling up” higher education: if it were delivered more efficiently, the relentless cost increases might finally be rolled back. Some wondered whether MOOCs would merely transform the existing system or blow it up entirely. Computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, cofounder of the MOOC provider Udacity, predicted that in 50 years, 10 institutions would be responsible for delivering higher education.
Then came the backlash. A high-profile experiment to use MOOCs at San Jose State University foundered. Faculty there and at other institutions rushing to incorporate MOOCs began pushing back, rejecting the notion that online courses could replace the nuanced work of professors in classrooms. The tiny completion rates for most MOOCs drew increasing attention. Thrun himself became disillusioned, and he lowered Udacity’s ambitions from educating the masses to providing corporate training.
But all the while, a great age of experimentation has been developing. Although some on-campus trials have gone nowhere, others have shown modest success (including a later iteration at San Jose State). In 2013, Georgia Tech announced a first-of-its-kind all-MOOC master’s program in computer science that, at $6,600, would cost just a fraction as much as its on-campus counterpart. About 1,400 students have enrolled. It’s not clear how well such programs can be replicated in other fields, or whether the job market will reward graduates with this particular Georgia Tech degree. But the program offers evidence that MOOCs can expand access and reduce costs in some corners of higher education.
Meanwhile, options for online courses continue to multiply, especially for curious people who aren’t necessarily seeking a credential. For-profit Coursera and edX, the nonprofit consortium led by Harvard and MIT, are up to nearly 13 million users and more than 1,200 courses between them. Khan Academy, which began as a series of YouTube videos, is making online instruction a more widely used tool in classrooms around the world.
[ Full article available at MIT Technology Review: http://www.technologyreview.com/review/533406/what-are-moocs-good-for/ ]