Blog: The Educated Reporter

Making Sense of MOOCs

With the year winding down, higher education journalists and pundits are wondering whether 2013 will be remembered as a tipping point for MOOCs – massive open online courses. Earlier this month a new study from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education found MOOCS had “relatively few active users,” with “few persisting to course’s end.” At the same time, a federal advisory council is urging regulators to be patient during these relatively early days of development for the platform, and allowing some breathing room for the experiment to continue. In light of these developments, it seemed like a good time to revisit a session from EWA’s National Seminar, held at Stanford University in May. Today’s guest blogger is Gwendolyn Glenn of WYPR Public Radio in Baltimore. Stream any session from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes.

The number of students enrolled in MOOCS, massive open online courses that are offered free, has increased dramatically over the past year. At EWA’s National Seminar, Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, a leading MOOC provider, said enrollment in their classes jumped from 700,000 in February 2013 to more than 3.4 million students in May.

Only a third of MOOC takers are in the United States, according to Koller, with enrollments spreading worldwide, especially in countries where higher education opportunities are limited.

However, in the midst of the MOOC enrollment explosion, the debates over the academic quality of their courses and whether these classes should be eligible for college credit have also grown.

In the EWA conference session “Higher Ed—What to Make of MOOCs,” Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, said he had major concerns about the growing MOOC movement.“My main issue is this (MOOCs) is a big distraction,” Samuels said. “There are many (MOOC companies) that are doing great work, but this is taking attention away from funding issues, large classes and student debt, which are more fundamental, but MOOCS are dominating the conversation.”

Coursera’s Koller, also a computer science professor at Stanford, not surprisingly, disagreed and said MOOC courses should be viewed as a positive tool that can be used to enhance and change the way students are taught. In addition, she pointed out that MOOCs could help ease overcrowded classes and give students an option when they are faced with closed courses during registration.

“Students wait sometimes 18 months to get in an algebra class, and it’s a crisis,” Koller said. “Universities should be encouraged to let students make progress, and MOOCs may be the way to do this. There’s no reason to have an allergic reaction because a course is taught online.”

Earlier this year, the American Council on Education gave its approval for five MOOC courses that could be taken for undergraduate college credit at the discretion of individual institutions. Some of the MOOC courses included Pre-calculus and Algebra offered through the University of California Irvine; Introduction to Genetics and Evolution and Bioelectricity through Duke University; and Calculus through the University of Pennsylvania.

But Scott Jaschik, editor/co-founder of Inside Higher Education and moderator of the discussion, questioned the credit worthiness of the courses, considering that the universities producing them are not allowing students on their own campuses to take them for credit toward their degrees.

“They didn’t say they are not credit worthy but that they won’t offer them for credit now,” said Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at ACE. “Universities won’t be forced to accept the courses. … Faculty could use MOOCs as a textbook or as part of an assignment for a course.”

If credit is given for a MOOC, a fee would have to be charged of the students, which those offering the courses said would be in the range of $150, much cheaper than what a traditional institution would charge. For this reason, Sandeen said MOOCs could help reduce student debt, a concern Samuels raised.

But MOOC advocates admit that even as the online courses are going viral, the completion rate is dismal. Koller said only 8 percent of those enrolled in Coursera classes complete them.

“People take them for different reasons. It’s an opportunity for risk-free exploration, high school students can explore courses for a major or students can take them and drop out without getting a failing grade,” Koller said.

Gabi Zolla, vice president for programs, research and policy at the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, sees a major value of MOOCs as their potential to affect workplace skills.

“The key is to use for credentials or credit that help people get jobs, and MOOCS can be one piece of the answer to linking learning and work,” Zolla said.

In terms of using MOOCs for regular college credit, Zolla added, “Faculty resistance is not new, but that doesn’t mean early adopters (of MOOCs) can’t start to change the tide.”

But Samuels was not convinced when it comes to college credit and worried that the existing curriculum development processes of higher learning institutions could be threatened by the invasion of MOOCS.

“I’m against them being offered for credit,” Samuels said. “I don’t think it makes coherent sense at this point.”