MOOCs Stir Controversy over Shifting Course of Higher Education

Posted on June 14, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments


While online education has existed for a while, teaching classes online is taking the world of higher education by storm due in part to the rise of MOOCs. MOOCs (massive open online course) are courses based on lecture videos and online interaction that can, seemingly, be taken by anyone with an internet connection. They represent a new form of “open” education that meets virtually, in a non-physical space. The restrictive size and space of a college classroom does not apply in MOOCs, opening the doors for thousands to enroll in the course. Courses include quizzes, homework, exercises, and exams.

Colleges and universities across the United States are investing in MOOCs, trying to make them available to students inside and outside of the university. According to the New Yorker, Harvard, MIT, Caltech, and the University of Texas have invested millions in the development of MOOCs. Harvard and MIT founded the non-profit edX to act as a portal for their MOOCs, offering online courses in law, history, science, engineering, business, social sciences, computer science, and public health. Many other universities around the world, from the United States to Hong Kong, are planning to do the same.

Stanford University began offering free online computer science courses in 2011, in which more than 350,000 people, of a broad age range and geographic distribution, enrolled. Stanford’s president John Hennessy weighed in on the significance of the online classroom in an op-ed for Times Higher Education. Hennessy wrote, “Although many experiences offered in a university will be hard to replicate online (especially the four-year residential experience that is the cornerstone of many undergraduate programmes), I believe we will find that online technology will improve so that the range of courses that can be effectively taught expands significantly.”

While Hennessy acknowledges the shortfalls of MOOCs, he hopes that it will provide a way for universities to cut costs and provide affordable education without jeopardizing student learning.

Coursera has a listing of hundreds of online courses offered by universities from around the world, including, for example, cryptography at Stanford and Virology I at Columbia University. Coursera is an educational project that partners with universities across the world to promote MOOCs as free higher level education for anyone and everyone. It has become an institutionalized database for free online courses that demonstrates that MOOCs are not exclusive to university students, nor are they hidden from public view.

While models for free online education are emerging for all levels of schooling, MOOCs are drawing some criticism over fear that they may not be suitable or practical enough for higher education.

In an op-ed for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Patrick J. Deneen credits the rise of MOOCs to the monoculture of education in the United States. After years of standardization and set educational curricula, the idea of catering to individual students’ needs in a classroom has receded. Instead, education has been built into a regulated model for the masses. As a result, MOOCs cater to students in the same fashion a classroom-based education would: supplying the masses with conventional knowledge, and nothing more.

“A balance needs to be struck between the franchising of high-quality education and the more intimate, locally grown experience that occurs when teachers and students reason together in a classroom,”
writes John Yemma for the Christian Science Monitor. Others who are attempting to fix the monoculture of MOOCs promote similar ideas, namely that courses should encourage students to pursue particular interests or think outside the box. However, as of now there have been few reforms to MOOCs.

There are also more tangible concerns. If MOOCs become popular enough that they replace traditional classrooms for university students, the attitude toward schoolwork could change if students do not possess a certain self-regulating work process. Online courses require a lot of self-discipline. You may no longer have to physically be in a classroom, but you must be aware of deadlines and important materials without a professor reminding you of them. There is also the potential that online courses are easy to cheat on or less likely to be taken seriously.
Furthermore, when you have a classroom comprised of thousands of pupils, how is a professor supposed to grade the course?

While MOOCs will continue to attract warranted criticism, it is remarkable that ivory towers are beginning to open their doors (albeit virtually) to anyone with a commitment to learn. Aspirations to take classes at elite universities can be fulfilled by anyone with an interest, a computer, and time, even if not in a traditional sense. 

MOOCs certainly represent an attempt at innovating higher education. But the question remains as to whether or not will they change higher education for better or for worse.  

To read more on MOOCs, Tadween recommends the following articles:

MOOCs – massive open online courses: jumping on the bandwidth
Steve Caplan (The Guardian)

How online learning is reinventing college
Laura Pappano (Christian Science Monitor)

Learn for Free with MOOCs
Devon Haynie (US News and World Report)

The 12 Myths of MOOCs
Dr. John Ebersole (Huffington Post)

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