Are MOOCs Worth It?

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are certainly challenging and transforming higher education, and in the future both models of learning will have to adapt around the other. I think the job market may soon consider a combination of both traditional and online courses as the better package when sifting candidates, and applicants with only online credentials may well stand a good chance of getting the job.

KarlM wrote a good article here on The Marble about the Pros and Cons of Higher Education that got me thinking about the topic of this article. I won’t summarize his article (you can read it here). Instead, I'll just take some of his points further while discussing the advantages of MOOCs and the challenges they present to traditional forms of higher education.

E-learning: Learning made easier?

Colleges and Universities Are Expensive. MOOCs are free (sort of)

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Americans owe a total of $870 billion in student debt. MOOCs are free in the sense that you can enroll and participate in the course without paying anything. However, should you wish to earn credit from the higher learning institution that offers the course, you may have to pay a small fee. Also, you may find that while you do have free access to all the videos and discussion forums, you may still need to pay for some of the readings. I’m currently taking a literature course online, for instance, where the instructor is using books both from the public domain and from more recent times, the latter of which we have to obtain on our own. The price, provided you don't have access to the titles at a local library, can make matters difficult; the expenses, however, are far below the costs involved by a college or university course, and if you’re not planning to make a career out of literature, you may be better off learning from the comfort of your home or that of a coffee shop (during lunch breaks, for instance).


Will MOOCs get you a job?

A hard-earned, expensive college degree is still the proven road to success, and, as KarlM points out in his article, people with a college degree are far more likely to keep their jobs during a recession compared to high school graduates. However, institutions like MIT offer highly technical courses which keep you updated with the latest research should you need to dust off your degree, and can introduce you to the latest technologies, giving you the tools to apply them in your own projects, should you be a newcomer to the field (think, for instance, of people who are changing careers because of economic downturns). You can learn some computer programming, for instance, put it into practice, and show a portfolio at interviews to prove you have taken a lot out of the online course you enrolled in. Remember, these courses are offered by prestigious institutions in the US and abroad – Harvard, MIT, Standford, Berkeley, TU Delft, École Polytéchnique Fédérale de Lausanne, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Peking University, to name a few of the EdX consortium – and there’s plenty of opportunity in the forums to interact with teaching assistants and other students to clarify sticky points or to discuss them further.

What online platforms for MOOCs are there?

The big three MOOC providers are Coursera, edX, and Udacity. I have already mentioned some of the universities in the edX consortium. Coursera unites even more partner universities from across the world, such as Princeton, Yale, Brown, Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University, The University of Chicago and others in the US, the University of Edinburgh, Universiteit Leiden, Technische Üniversität München, The University of Melbourne, National University of Singapore, The University of Tokyo, and many others. Coursera and edX offer courses in sciences and the humanities. Udacity, on the other hand, is geared more towards vocational courses, such as JavaScript Basics, Intro to Java Programming, Developing Android Apps, and others. They are offered through Stanford University, sometimes in collaboration with other universities.

Are MOOCs good fun?

Sometimes they’re great fun; other times they can be rather boring (albeit of very high quality), which is partly why less than 10% of those who enroll end up finishing their courses. At their best, however, MOOCs are almost as engaging as a great college class. I say almost, because in low-enrollment college courses the lecture is punctuated by class interaction, which can add a lot to a course (compared to a lecture-only class). With MOOCs you get to watch videos with the instructor and his/her TAs (as in a class on poetry offered by Coursera), or video presentations put together by the instructor (as in the Social Psychology class on Coursera), and it’s all great fun. Making use of technology to make us privy to interesting conversations, or to quickly drive home major points on a topic is something that can keep us engaged for far longer than a boring classroom lecture.

How will MOOCs transform higher education?

1. People will enroll in different courses, both online and offline

In my view, the first thing that we may see looking at the bigger picture may be a change in what kind of courses students enroll in. I think they may take many classes online for fun, reserving for credit those classes which may increase their chances of a better-paid job. That way, they will get a semblance of a liberal arts education to help them set their values better, think critically and creatively as they navigate through life, while getting a business or science degree that may get them a better salary. Fields like the arts and anthropology, for instance, may see lower and lower enrollment in traditional higher learning. And that would be unfortunate, if you're meant to be an anthropologist; it would also be a shame on other counts. You won't end up getting enough of a liberal arts education, for instance, because the level of interaction in a small four-year college, or the academic and career guidance you get in a good large university can’t be replaced by online threads in a discussion forum. Part of why that is is a qualitative difference as well as a difference in how we digest information online. Which brings me to number 2.

2. MOOCs offer smaller bits of info at a time

A typical college student has an attention span of 15 minutes. That means that in order to keep him/her engaged, the professor has to shift gears every 15 minutes, using humor, changing the rhythm with a small story, etc. It sounds easy, but it is, in fact, no easy feat. Which is why MOOCs fragment their information into smaller segments than the duration of a college class. You can have videos of anything from 10 minutes to 25 minutes (rounded off). When the video presents a wealth of information, 15 minutes can seem like a lot. But the good thing about seeing videos online is that you can rewind them if you find your attention wandering. The possibility to rewind and ask questions in the forums about a particular video also helps students who are having trouble understanding English.

3. More and more high school students take MOOCs

By allowing students to digest the info at their own pace, MOOCs may eventually help those students get ready for more difficult college work than they could currently handle. Such online courses can increase their chances of getting accepted into a better college, while also giving them a head start at choosing their major.

4. With MOOCs, students become lifelong learners. The way that happens can shed some light on what needs to happen in universities as well

One of the goals of higher education is to instill in the students the need for lifelong education. And yet to far too many college students, most college courses are about cramming for a number of exams and getting a grade. Online you can learn without focusing on the grade. If you wish, you can take quizzes in order to receive a certification at the end. The good part about it is that quizzes are nicely spread out throughout the course, keeping you engaged and helping you recapitulate essential points in a manner that’s rather effective at reinforcing the presented material. Online you also get to chat with other students on forums – a model of learning that has been now introduced in traditional teaching as well --, which makes the journey more about the discovery of what you and others think about the material than about memorizing major points for an exam. Again, in the better colleges and universities you are encouraged to think critically, and are often required to write essays to prove that you do, but in many large universities you’re left at your own devices. Which is why such large universities need this model of an online forum if they are to help students better develop their critical thinking and communication skills. Students nowadays like to communicate online, and traditional learning environments need to create the necessary online environments and networks to help students learn in their favorite media.

University lecture hall

How will higher education transform MOOCs?

1. Assessment methods

I believe that in the future we’ll witness not only the impact of MOOCs on traditional higher education, but also some changes the latter will bring about on the former. I’m thinking first and foremost about better assessment methods. Yes, quizzes are fine, and the way they’re spaced out throughout the course is also a nice touch. But there’s more to student assessment than this. There’s class participation, for one. College professors usually set aside 10% of the class grade for it, and they keep an eye out to evaluate each student throughout the semester. Then there are the essays, which some professors painstakingly mark with observations to help the student communicate his ideas and arguments better, and in better English. In a traditional setting, both class participation and essay writing help the professor with his/her evaluation of the student’s mastery of class material. Now consider these massive open online courses. How can you make notes on the finer points of essays when you have tens of thousands of students enrolled in a course? How can you even follow their participation in online dialogues? One solution would be to make these free courses a little less so, to have some sort of admission requirements which would cut down on enrollment. Considering the rate at which these MOOCs are growing since 2012, this may not be such a bad idea – except that it undercuts one of the core values of these course offerings, many of them provided by prestigious university professors in the absence of extra remuneration.

2. Social life

One major drawback of online learning is that it doesn’t come with a social life. True, there’s online interaction, but that is not quite social interaction of the kind you find on a college campus. One way to redress that would be to return to an older model of e-learning, one sanctioned by universities in degree-granting programs of distance learning, that requires students to be in one place for a certain amount of time each academic year. As these MOOCs attract thousands and thousands of students, there should be a way for a number of them to get together on the campus of one of the participating universities, even if it’s not the one offering the course. The university could, however, provide accommodation and dining services. That way students could learn more about each other, their cultures, and ways of seeing the world, the way they do in the traditional model of higher learning.

So are MOOCs worth it?

Yes. Definitely yes. Try one out today. It doesn’t cost you anything. Whether you will discover a major sooner or get a better job remains to be seen. But you will most likely discover a pleasure for learning and hone your critical thinking and communication skills. And then you’ll be better equipped to think about both your university degree and your job choices. Enjoy!

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