Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are the latest iteration of distance learning. But do they pose a threat to traditional, small scale online universities? To answer this question, let’s look at both the pros and cons of MOOCs in comparison to online colleges.
Too good to be true? The three main companies currently offering MOOCs to worldwide students are edX, Coursera and Udacity. The latter two are for-profit companies; the former a joint nonprofit founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MOOCs offer high-quality, university-level course material to students all over the world. And, in most cases, these courses are offered at no cost. At a time when student debt is skyrocketing, the ‘free’ component in and of itself almost seems too good to be true. But a quick scan of Coursera’s offerings presents a range of subject matter (from History of Rock to Intro to Thermodynamics) from A-list colleges like Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Berklee College of Music and University of Melbourne. If you’re thinking this all sounds great (and it really is), be advised that there are some drawbacks.
Does size matter? The biggest argument put forth by opponents of MOOCs is that the scale on which MOOCs operate is detrimental to the learning experience. A typical MOOC sees nearly 50,000 students enroll. Even accounting for the high drop rate (most MOOCs have completion rates of less than 10%), that’s still a very unbalanced student-to-teacher ratio. For this reason, MOOCs often employ peer grading and review, which may or may not provide the most accurate and helpful feedback. Professor interaction in MOOCs is also lower than with small-scale online colleges.
Accreditation and Standardisation Currently, most MOOCs do not confer college credit. However, universities worldwide are debating accepting MOOCs in exchange for academic credit. A large step in that direction could be gained by forming an evaluating committee to devise universal standards for MOOC courses. By showing a commitment to quality on the same scale as other online learning initiatives, MOOCs could do a lot to legitimize themselves.
Threat level MOOC MOOCs are an ideal way for students to gain familiarity with a particular college or concept. In traditional learning settings, students are limited by their major declaration when it comes to course content. With MOOCs, however, there’s no reason why a student can’t explore topics in engineering alongside courses in nutrition, hospitality management or English literature. And, even though MOOCs do not confer credit, they can still be useful for students who would otherwise take remedial courses or who need a referesher in order to test out of lower level courses. The MOOC model also attracts lifelong learners who may already hold a degree and wish to take post-baccalaureate courses for pleasure. Yes, definitely, MOOCs may cut into small scale marketshare by siphoning off students who are not in pursuit of a degree or wish to take courses outside the required major content. MOOCs also force colleges to reconsider their approaches to online and traditional learning.
MOOCs are in their infancy, but as they grow and mature, the process will become more and more fine-tuned. With the cost of higher education at an all-time high, these free and low-cost options will become increasingly appealing to students. For the time being, however, the sure bet is on accredited online degree programs.
* Our guest, Scott Kaufman, works in the field of education where he writes frequently about the future of online education. His work has been featured on Concordia University Online as well as several other large US Universities.