MOOCs: Will Online Courses Help More Students Stay In School?

Udacity, one of the pioneers of the MOOC (massively open online course) movement, announced last week that it would offer a fully-accredited MOOC master’s degree in partnership with Georgia Tech and AT&T. The MS in Computer Science will cost no more than $7,000, and be open to anyone who meets entrance requirements. This partnership is the strongest signal to date that MOOCs will make quality higher-education more accessible than ever before.

Much of the debate over MOOCs has focused on what their rise means for the traditional university experience (see this and this). Amid the hand-wringing over the “future of college,” it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that most college students are not hanging out at the quad or reading leisurely with a backdrop of rolling hills. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, non-traditional students — those who attend school part-time, have dependents, do not have a high school degree, etc. — comprise 40% of undergraduates. This large and growing share of college students is woefully underserved by colleges whose policies are designed to serve residential 18-year-olds. For nontraditional students, MOOCs could be key to realizing a return on college.

Udacity, Coursera, EdX and the other stars of the MOOC movement are not the first to put university courses online. For-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and Capella University have been luring students with the promise of flexible online courses for years. Sadly, many of the for-profit universities have proved to be glorified diploma mills more concerned with raking in revenue from federal student loans than with providing quality education.

Still, their popularity points to a growing demand for online higher education. By providing free content, MOOCs are following in the steps of the open education movement. (It's worth nothing, though, that the majority of MOOC materials, unlike true open educational resources, are not openly licensed.) While free courses do a great job of connecting learners to content, they still don’t meet the needs of underserved, non-traditional students.

For these students, open content may be important, but the real draw is the potential to upgrade their skills and get a leg up in a competitive job market. To fully reap the benefits of higher education, these learners need a recognized credential: the college degree. 

Udacity’s partnership with Georgia Tech is meaningful because a well-respected university is widely expanding access, not just to its content, but to that critical credential. Earlier this year, Udacity also partnered with San Jose State University to develop “San Jose State Plus,” a series of for-credit undergraduate courses that cost $150. According to a recent survey, 44% of community colleges are “beginning to explore options” to integrate MOOCs into their offerings. Community colleges, which educate low-income and working-class students, are woefully underfunded. Online courses, along with appropriate individual and community support, could help community colleges meet the mandate to educate the neediest students.

MOOCs have enjoyed more than enough hype. The New York Times notably declared 2012 to be the “The Year of the MOOC.”  All this attention has led to significant backlash. Critics of MOOCs are quick to point out their low completion rates (fewer than 7% of students complete the courses on average). They also note that the courses take the ineffective lecture format and make it the primary mode of learning.

These criticisms are valid. MOOC providers have to figure out a way to design meaningful assessments that go beyond multiple-choice quizzes and shallow peer reviewed essays. They need to foster real community and collaboration, two key aspects of the learning experience. 

Still, we should be able criticize MOOCs while recognizing their potential to dramatically increase access to education. If MOOCs succeed in improving quality and granting degrees, they may well prove worth the hype.


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