Massive Open Online Courses offered by universities and nonprofits are enrolling millions worldwide, but educators say MOOCs can't do it all. (Ryan McVay / Getty Images)
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A major innovation — forged by the struggles of the Great Recession and fostered by technology — has come to higher education.
And everyone, it seems, is talking about MOOCs, the “Massive Open Online Courses” offered by universities and nonprofits and enrolling millions worldwide.
“People started to say, ‘How do we do more with the resources we have?’ ” said Jim Shelton, the Education Department’s top innovation guru. “Technology has almost always answered that question for other sectors.”
When nonprofit edX offered its first MOOC in “Circuits and Electronics” last spring, 154,000 students from more than 160 countries signed up (though only 8,000 lasted to the final). Now edX has 900,000 students and more than 30 courses. For-profit rival Coursera has 4.1 million students, 406 courses and 83 partner institutions.
The traditional model has its advantages. Peer pressure — and paying tuition — incentivize students to stick with classes. Roughly 90 percent who sign up for MOOCs aren’t completing the classes.
Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller’s response to that is that 80 percent to 85 percent who intend to complete a MOOC do so. It’s just that most don’t want or need a whole class. So really, she says, MOOCs actually help solve academia’s wasted time problem.
But Koller admits MOOCs can’t do everything.
“If you have the opportunity to sit in a classroom with a great lecturer, 12 people around the table having a discussion, then by all means, that is the best educational experience you can have,” Koller, a former Stanford computer science professor, told a recent conference of education journalists there.
“I’m not trying to substitute that with technology,” she said. “But even at Stanford, I can’t make the claim that students spend the majority of their time in classes with less than 20 people.”
Many of the online courses offered by organizations and schools are free or at prices far below traditional campus classes, and many don’t give official academic credit, though that could change in coming years.
More than a century ago, the Carnegie Foundation invented the “credit hour,” which became the basic unit of academic time across education, measuring hours spent in class but not necessarily what students learned.
Now, the foundation is reviewing the whole model with an eye possibly toward a more competency-based approach — awarding credit for what students learn, not how long.
The U.S. government is interested, too. In March, the Education Department approved a competency-based program at Southern New Hampshire University and signaled that other colleges could get federal approval for programs that don’t mark time in traditional credit hours. Such programs are starting to emerge.
For students who want to move through college quickly, “this has the potential of really changing the cost curve,” said Jeff Selingo, editor at large at the Chronicle of Higher Education. For others, it could free up time for other important learning experiences — like research with faculty or internships.
And schools that cater to nontraditional students are seeing the possibilities. The University of Maryland University College recently announced it will award credit for demonstrated learning from six massive online courses offered by Coursera and Udacity. The classes cover math and science, such as introduction to physics, pre-calculus, calculus and introduction to computer science.
UMUC has catered largely to adults who come to the school with previous college-level learning, whether from prior college coursework or job training received in the military. This year, it was No. 2 on EDGE’s list of most popular schools among students using military tuition assistance, second only to American Military University.
UMUC students will have to demonstrate their competency of material through standardized exams taken in a test center.
“To us, an MOOC is just one more way that a student might learn something at the college level that we should help them get credit for if they can demonstrate that they have that knowledge,” said Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs for UMUC.
But she noted the courses are still in their infancy.
“Right now, it looks as though the majority of students who are in MOOCs already have an undergraduate degree, so unless that changes, I don’t think there will be a huge number of students taking this,” Cini said. “But higher ed changes so quickly, the numbers could increase, for sure.”