A means to democratize higher education or a fantasy solution for an unsolvable problem: MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses, are certainly capable of provoking heated debate between academics, economists, and students alike. Though the acronym was unknown to most people until just a few years ago, it seems that everyone now has an opinion about low-cost and free online education for the masses. It’s a complex debate. Take a look at this two-part series examining some of the phenomenon’s most vocal fans and opponents, and if you haven’t yet been bit by the MOOC bug, click here to learn more about how they work.
MOOCs have some pretty impressive backers, including Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor credited with popularizing free online courses by opening up his Artificial Intelligence course to anyone with an internet connection, the reaction to which prompted the founding of the online education organization Udacity. He’s not the only respected college professor to jump on board, either. Professors from institutions all over the world have joined in, inspired by the ambition to, as Thrun says, “make education free for the whole world.”
Wesleyan president, Michel S. Roth, stated that despite some initial skepticism, he found that MOOCs open up new possibilities. In a literature course that he taught, he observed increased diversity with students enrolling from Bulgaria, Russia and India, and forming study groups in languages like Spanish and Portuguese. Couples were able to enroll together, students provided excellent lists of supplemental reading, and many people with no previous access to higher education were able to join. Roth wrote that his MOOC “has impressed upon me aspects of difference and inclusion I don’t often encounter on campus.”
Free online school has the potential for positive societal implications as well. Opening up education for developing countries has won MOOCs a great deal of acclaim. Additionally, with nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States unprepared for credit-level classes, MOOCs are being promoted as a way for students to develop their basic education.
A.J. Jacobs, a contributor to the New York Times, pops up on both sides of the debate with his comprehensive analysis of his own MOOC experience, taking 11 classes through Coursera. He rated the convenience of free online learning as the most attractive aspect, stating that he “watched lectures while striding on my treadmill, while riding a train, while eating a spinach salad… on double-speed when my slow-talking cosmology professor lectured, and on three-fourths speed when my British epistemology professor tommy-gunned out his syllables.” He described his overall experience as “relatively painless self-improvement” — a verdict echoed by many students from similar backgrounds.
As Jacobs noted, one of the problems with MOOCs — and perhaps one of the reasons for the exceptionally high attrition rates cited in his article — is that, “there’s no cost to quitting, no social stigma for short-term dabbling.” Ironically, the low or non-existent fees which attract so many students also seem responsible for the absence of guilt which enables so many people to drop out halfway through a course. There’s no shortage of students signing up, so figuring out how to make them stay is surely the next challenge for MOOC supporters.
What are your thoughts about free online courses? Tell us your opinion in the comments below. Are you interested in taking a MOOC? Learn more about Colorado State University’s upcoming Science of Relationships course.