A MOOC Revolution

The last year has seen a major media brouhaha around massive open online courses, or MOOCs, and their potential to revolutionize higher education. MOOCs allow an unlimited number of enrollees to follow video lectures, complete regular assignments and testing, and in short, complete college course designed and taught by the top minds in the fields. For the starry-eyed optimists, MOOCs bring Ivy League education to the people for free over the internet and will shake up the outdated and overpriced higher-ed system. To the sceptics, MOOCs are little more than a flash in the pan with no chance of offering a comparable education to classroom instruction. Today, it remains an open question whether the MOOC portends an academic revolution or is just a passing internet fad.

The Rise of the MOOC


MOOCs exploded onto the educational scene in 2012. However, these free online courses taught by elite Ivy League professors have earlier roots. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched its OpenCourseWare initiative in 2002, making course materials available to the public for free; this early standard is still going strong, and the program has published content for more than 2,000 courses since its inception. Many major universities have followed suit with similar open-course sites.

In 2011, professors at Stanford stepped up the game by launching a course on artificial intelligence; this course, unlike its predecessors, offered homework exercises, quizzes, and a fixed schedule of online lectures. Even though credit was not available to students who completed the course, the response was overwhelming: more than 150,000 people from all over the world enrolled, and the MOOC was born. Within two years, other elite universities began to offer these courses. Free online classes are now available from such prestigious academic institutions as Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, Princeton, Duke, Brown, and Columbia.

“Massive” is a key component of these courses, as they generally amass between 20,000 and 150,000 registrants. Delivering course material to so many students at once required new technology, and some early MOOC course developers left their university posts to form companies that administer these courses to the public. The top three players in MOOC deployment are currently Coursera, Udacity, and MIT’s proprietary edX; as MOOC education is refined, more hosting companies are sure to arrive on the scene

Shaking Up The Ivory Tower

There is no question that MOOCs represent a sea change in educational deliverables. By the end of 2012, more than 3 million students were enrolled in these courses “” a whopping increase from the 150,000 students enrolled in the first MOOC just two years prior. edX’s first course offering, an introductory class on circuits, has been completed by 155,000 students; this exceeds the total number of individuals who have ever received a degree from MIT.

The powers that be are not sitting back; they’re taking MOOCs quite seriously. The American Council on Education, the primary U.S. accreditation agency, has already given approval for Coursera to grant real academic credit for five of its free online courses.

With college costs spiralling upward, especially at private universities, many academic professionals see MOOCs as a way to reduce per student costs for offering basic level courses. A recent survey by the Babson Survey Research Group and College Board found that 77% of academic leaders rated online learning outcomes the same or greater than traditional face-to-face classes. If the average MOOC enrolls between 30,000 and 50,000 students, as researchers have estimated, then even if the course costs as much to produce and deliver as a traditional college class, the per student return on investment would be remarkably higher.

Challenges and the Counter Revolution

Cheaters, slackers and dropouts

Yet not everyone is on the bandwagon. Critics claim the problems with MOOCs are inherent in their mode of delivery. In an online format, cheating and plagiarism on tests and assignments is a constant concern. Oddly, cheating does occur in MOOCs, even though the courses are free. Creative cheaters have devised numerous ways to beat the MOOC system, such as maintaining multiple accounts, sharing test questions on Google Docs or using Twitter hashtags to discuss test items in real time.

Grading also present difficulties. In courses with thousands of participants, most instructors use peer grading. This format depends on the grading abilities of other students; in theory, more educated learners are better graders. Since there are no prerequisites for MOOC registration, this can be a problem. Coursera is developing software that assigns weights to peer graders, therefore giving more credence to peer grades given by “good” graders.

In short, a number of professors and academic experts are questioning if MOOCs could ever truly offer equivalent learning outcomes. A recent Gallup survey found widespread and deep scepticism of the MOOC movement among American university presidents. The cheating and trouble with assessment aside, critics often cite the most damning statistic of all: of the thousands of people who enroll in these online courses, only about 7% end up completing them.

A flimsy business model?

Profitability is necessary if MOOCs are to continue. The concept has attracted millions of dollars in venture capital funding; for example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated more than $3 million to MOOC development in 2012. However, the industry has yet to see a return on venture capital investment. It is notable that not one of the big three MOOC hosting services has a business plan, perhaps reflecting educators’ mixed feelings about the learning model and where it best belongs on the academic spectrum.

While instructors believe that MOOCs have a future in American education, they also acknowledge that MOOC development and administration often comes at a cost to their more traditional graduate students. One professor has said that while teaching a MOOC was a successful endeavor, it would not be repeated unless the university that employs him reduces his other responsibilities. Creating a course can take hundreds of man-hours away from busy professors at elite institutions.

MOOCs Are Here to Stay

Despite the industry’s struggle to properly place and fund this educational model, professors who teach MOOCs are enthusiastic about the courses’ ability to reach a greater amount of students with a rigorous curriculum. In a study of more than 100 professors who taught MOOCs, nearly half of them stated the courses were as academically challenging as the same material when taught in a classroom. Almost 80% of these same educators believe that MOOCs have a place in the future of academics.

Students who have completed MOOCs responded with comparable enthusiasm. In a circuits and electronics course hosted on Coursera and also taught on-campus at MIT, a surprising 63% of students who had taken both courses reported that their learning experiences in the MOOC were better.

While the details may be murky, it appears that MOOCs are here to stay. MOOCs will probably never replace traditional educational models, but they do stand to augment them. In addition to approving the five courses by Coursera for college credit, The American Council on Education is reviewing three more hosted by Udacity, and there are likely more to come. Schools may eventually need to charge for course credit to turn a profit and attract more serious participants, but for now MOOCs are free. Interested in some free knowledge on a topic of interest to you? Now is the time to explore a MOOC!

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