MOOCs on the Move

Massive open online courses programs gain fans as well as detractors

1 May 2013

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have picked up support but also encountered criticism since my last blog about them in November. The Washington Post reports that Stanford will partner with the nonprofit edX, founded by MIT and Harvard, to develop an open-source Web platform for free online college courses offered by those two universities as well as other prestigious schools like Georgetown. Stanford has no plans to offer its own courses on the platform but will help develop a platform that edX says it hopes will be the “Linux of learning.” The president of edX says the site plans to open all the software code for the platform to the world on 1 June. And the world is anxious to attend MOOCs, according to MIT Technology Review. It reports that students in countries like Brazil and India have been “signing up in droves” for MOOCs.

But U.S. universities aren’t the only ones getting onboard with MOOCs. Berlin-based startup iversity will be offering its first online courses in September or October. Iversity won’t be creating its own content, but instead will rely on courses provided by other universities and individual professors. The U.K.-based Futurelearn MOOC consortium formed last December plans to launch its courses in the next few months.

MOOCs will gain even more popularity if a bill introduced in March in the California State Senate passes. It could reshape higher education by requiring the state’s public colleges and universities to grant credit to students for faculty-approved online courses they were unable to register for because the classes were filled. If SB 520 passes, it would be the first time public universities grant credit for online courses they did not develop. Authored by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, the bill would require the University of California, the California State University, and the state’s community colleges to award credit to students who pass online courses, like those offered by Coursera and Udacity. “Last fall, 80 percent of the state’s 112 community college campuses reported waitlists for classes,” Steinberg said in a statement. “On average, that equates to about 7000 enrolled students forced onto a waitlist at each campus. The need for this online lifeline for students is critical.”

But not everyone sees the benefits of MOOCs, especially faculty. In April, more than 1600 people signed an online petition, started by the Berkeley Faculty Association, expressing deep concerns about SB 520. “This bill will lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socioeconomic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education,” the petition reads, according to The Daily Californian. Philip Stark, a signatory of the petition and a University of California, Berkeley, professor of statistics, said in a comment on the petition, “I have taught hybrid courses, large for-credit online courses, and a (massively open online course) with about 52 000 students. It is quite difficult to approach the pedagogical quality of a good face-to-face course with an online course. If there are to be UC-quality online courses, they likely will come from UC and from its peer institutions, not from just any commercial provider.”

In his new book, "Higher Education in the Digital Age," William Bowen, the president emeritus of Princeton University, told Inside Higher Ed, “Universities must slow the rising cost of higher education.” To do that, he says college administrations should turn to online courses to combat the “cost disease. He said the cure may be online education, arguing it can reduce costs without undermining students education. He adds that MOOCs can increase productivity by leaving faculty time to do higher-value work, including meeting with students rather than repeating “stale material again and again.”

Do you think MOOCs are a benefit to higher education or do you think they will undermine it? If you’ve either taught a course or taken one, let us know what you thought about the experience.

Photo: londoneye/iStockphoto

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