Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad MOOC?

Distance Education Ad Hoc Group

In the last year, interest in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has exploded, with educators and politicians around the country alternately decrying them as impersonal automatons designed to replace faculty or extolling them as the panacea to address all the ills in higher education. So what are MOOCs, and what role could they play, if any, at your college?

MOOCs are a form of online course. Some even say they are an “online course on steroids” because of the large number—hundreds of thousands—of students MOOCs can enroll and the artificial intelligence-like engine that automates evaluation tasks. Most of the classes are comprised of video lectures, with quizzes throughout for students to determine their progress. Discussion boards on which students engage with each other about the subjects discussed in the class give the participants a sense of involvement in the course and interaction with their fellow enrollees. Due to huge enrollment numbers, faculty authors of the courses, aside from the initial video and quiz content, are generally not involved in the day-to-day operation of the class; most of the assignments and quizzes are multiple choice or other quantitative forms of assessment, automatically scored and recorded by the MOOC software, which do not require grading by a faculty member.

January 2012 marked the advent of MOOCs in California when the first MOOC start-up Udacity was formed in Palo Alto. Its founder, Stanford computer science research professor Sebastian Thrun, initiated the first MOOC on artificial intelligence, drawing a startling 160,000 students worldwide. A second company, Coursera, was founded a few months later, also by Stanford faculty. In the spring, MIT—later joined by Harvard, UC Berkeley, and most recently the University of Texas—announced the creation of edX, a platform that allowed students to take free online courses created by faculty from those universities. All of these entities argue that the use of MOOCs will change the face of higher education by offering students the opportunity to pursue academic areas of interest for free. MOOCs are generally authored by faculty at the universities represented by each of the companies: Coursera, for example, has faculty from the University of Michigan, Princeton, and Stanford, among others. The courses are offered at no cost to the student unless he or she wishes to receive certification as having successfully completed the course, at which point there is a small fee. While many of the classes are in computer science, Coursera in particular has sought to offer classes in a gamut of disciplines, including economics, history, and medical specialties, among others. At present, the majority of MOOCs contain upper division or graduate level content rather than introductory level material. Some of the courses offer specific job skills that could translate into certification for employers seeking certain skills.

In November 2012, the Gates Foundation announced that it was awarding grants to a number of educational institutions, including California’s Mt. San Jacinto College, to study the uses of MOOCs at the introductory and remedial education levels. Mt. San Jacinto will be creating an online developmental writing MOOC, while others will be examining the possibilities of introductory political science, physics, algebra, and a range of other subjects. Educators are exploring various uses of MOOCs in addition to traditional course credit. For example, these courses could be used to provide a refresher for students prior to taking course placement assessment exams, particularly for students who are years removed from their previous educational experiences. The American Council on Education has also been awarded a Gates Foundation grant to look at possibilities and mechanisms to offer MOOCs for college transfer credit, as well as to look at alternative business models in higher education.

As might be expected, concerns have been raised about the role of MOOCs within the California Community College System. While the courses were created initially designed to be not-for-credit, in recent weeks several universities have indicated their interest in granting students credit for courses that they have taken through a MOOC provided they pass a proctored exam. Under such terms, Colorado State University’s online program announced that it would grant credit to MOOC students who had completed an introductory computer science course offered by Udacity. Beyond the issues involved in granting credit for these classes, concerns also exist regarding verification of the identity of students taking the courses and ensuring that the work is actually being completed by the student; Coursera recently added an honor code after discovering that plagiarism was rampant in some of its courses. Some might also question the value and validity of a course in which thousands of students enroll and are largely measured by their peers rather than by a faculty member or a qualified teaching assistant; the absence of a discipline expert’s assessment might provide students with a false sense of understanding of the subject material, especially if the only people involved in commenting on their work are their peers.

While online courses with enrollments in the thousands that do not require facilities costs certainly would appeal to many administrators, a wide range of pedagogical concerns persist regarding the use of MOOCs, and faculty have understandable reservations regarding these courses. Nevertheless, faculty clearly need to be actively involved in discussions about the use of MOOCs on their campuses. While this model might not work for all students in all disciplines, MOOCs may, like online classes, allow colleges to reach students and populations that had previously been unable to avail themselves of the opportunities provided by the educational institutions in California and beyond. And, while MOOCs might be the latest fad to strike colleges which are seeking financially efficient solutions to the current budget woes, MOOCs may also be here to stay. If that proves to be the case, discussions and decisions involving them must, as online education has, involve faculty from the onset, not as an afterthought.