MOOCs: The Pros and Cons

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the hot topic right now in the halls of educational institutions across the world.

MOOCs vary in their design in terms of scale and openness. With regard to scale, they can range from 100 students to over 100,000 students. These are often not traditional students, but professionals who have already earned a degree, educators, business people, researchers, etc. Students also live all over the world and can connect with each other through the online forums and communities that accompany every MOOC. Lectures take place in either a videotaped or real-time format (but mostly the former).

In terms of openness, the “freemium” business model, used by edX (a MOOC platform consisting of Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, Georgetown, McGill, University of Toronto, and Kyoto University, among others) and drawn from Silicon Valley companies like Google, is the leading model for MOOCs thus far (although companies such as Coursera and Udacity run private MOOCs that draw millions of students as well). On this model, course content is free, but certification, etc., costs money. This model is not the most open it could be (it could all be free), but it is fairly progressive and allows hundreds of thousands of people to take classes from top universities that they would not otherwise be able to take (either because they cannot afford the school, cannot get in the school, or cannot get to the country that the school is in). No matter where these courses lead their participants, in this age of ever-increasing school prices, people having this much access to post-secondary education is a breath of fresh air.

Maybe.

If MOOCs become as widespread as their founders would like them to become, the idea is that people anywhere will be able to take a Harvard course, or even a Harvard bachelor’s degree. At first glance, it looks like a great system. But will this actually even out educational accessibility? Will a MOOC degree be worth as much as one that is paid for and taken in-person? Or could MOOCs create a two-tier post-secondary education system in which most instruction, in-class and online, is dominated (and homogenized) by a few top schools, as the philosophy department at San Jose State University suggested in an open letter to Harvard?

None of the above is it to say that distance education cannot work. We have made incredible advances in information technology in the past two decades. We should use those advances to their full capacity to do good for humanity. Online courses and blended courses can create the classroom environment anywhere, use materials in new and creative ways (as I wrote about here), connect people who otherwise would never be connected, and allow students to take classes where they would never otherwise be able to. The value of such tools cannot be underestimated.

Nor is any of the above is to say that there is not presently an accessibility problem with post-secondary education across the world. Education prices continue to rise nearly everywhere. If we believe our societal rhetoric that an educated society is a good society (and we should, since studies like this one from UC Berkeley suggest a strong link between education rates and crime rates), then we need to rectify this issue.

I genuinely believe that a large number of people working on MOOCs do want to solve this problem, but they are approaching it incorrectly. If accessibility to in-class courses in post-secondary institutions is the problem, then that is what demands our attention. MOOCs have their place, as do blended courses and online courses. Not many people argue the opposite. But MOOCs will not alleviate the problem of accessibility; and they might aggravate it.

Lastly, classroom learning is not quite the dinosaur some depict it as. In the classroom, teachers and students build relationships, students build relationships amongst themselves, and students build dialogical, argumentative, and communicative skills in ways that they cannot build online. In using our technological advancements to improve education, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. We are social animals.

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