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It’s time to meet the MOOC

February 12, 2013

By Sarah Vander Schaaff

I was amazed to read that Stanford’s six Massively Open On-line Courses, or MOOC’s, reached over 300,000 people. But it wasn’t until last week that I realized the MOOC, or a future incarnation of it, would most likely be part of my daughters’ experiences, even if they weren’t pursuing something in the field of Computer Science in college.

I remember when a new thing called the “Ethernet” was going to be installed in my college dorm room.

But as many have said, MOOC’s not only expand knowledge, they can cut down the cost of it, an idea no parent can completely scoff at unless spending more than $300,000 for a four year private college education in the year 2023 sounds like a drop in the bucket. (That figure is based on 6% increases per year and a handy graph by Wells Fargo.)

It was last week that the MOOC gained acceptance, at least in some ways, as a possible means to earn college credit. The American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service announced four courses offered by Coursera were regarded as worthy. A similar approval may be coming for a select group of Udacity courses, as well.

This is news because, as the LA Times reported last week, “In the past, ACE has recommended degree credit for other online courses and organizations. But this is the first time the group has endorsed classes from large, wholly online organizations with open enrollments.”

Coursera is not a university, it describes itself as “…a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions.”

As for the courses that could earn a student college credit, The Los Angeles Times says they include a pre-calculus class from UC Irvine, classes in genetics and bioelectricity from Duke, and a calculus class from the University of Pennsylvania.

Would these universities give credit to their own students who take the classes through Coursera? It doesn’t sound like it, according to the Wall Street Journal. But other institutions could. And that is significant.

Stephen Ruth, a professor of public policy and technology management at George Mason University puts the MOOC’s import in perspective in his recent article, “Can MOOC’s and Existing E-Learning Efficiency Paradigms Help Reduce College Costs?” (International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning.)

First, his conclusion is yes: MOOC’s and similar programs lower what he identifies as the two factors that contribute to the biggest rise in expense: faculty and administration.

Even if the biggest proponents of MOOC’s say there will still be a place for small classes with a tenured professor and actual, not virtual, office hours, Ruth asks us to change a fundamental part of our thinking:

“Perhaps the greatest inhibitor of reducing the unit costs through E-Learning is the concept of the university as a place.”

I’ve had to repeat that sentence to myself a few times. But, then, again, I wasn’t sure I wanted Ethernet.

Are you willing to let go of “the concept of the university as a place”? Let us know.

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