American Reason: Online-only courses could make diplomas more accessible, but is there a catch?

American Reason
Massive online courses offer new ways to learn, but with added caveats. — photo by Rachel Jessen

As they sign up for classes, students at some of the nation’s largest universities (like the University of Kentucky and the University of Colorado at Boulder) will notice that they can enroll in online-only courses with thousands of students for college credit. Does an expansion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) into degree programs signal more affordable access to education or a degradation of the academic process?

Matt Sowada: I love the idea of these MOOCs. Fledgling concepts like this remind me that while the information age is fraught with threats to privacy, security and liberty, it also has the capacity to deliver tremendous boons to society. What differentiates a MOOC from iTunes U or some lecture set available at the library is the possibility of an online forum capable of granting access to TAs, other students and possibly even professors. I’ve never taken one, but if a MOOC is capable of producing a vibrant, responsive online classroom, then there’s no ethical reason why an institution couldn’t accept one for credit. Students are currently able to transfer credits because there’s trust that the previous institution left the student with an understanding of the material. If some university decides it can trust one of these MOOCs, how is that any different? If the costs of these courses reflect the lower overhead they are bound to have, then we’ve got to give these MOOCs a chance.

Vik Patel: I don’t think the couple of MOOCs I’ve taken have risen to the level of a college course, primarily because of the first word in that acronym: ‘massive.’ MOOCs generally use pre-recorded lectures supplemented by online tests, quizzes or assignments. Due to the enormous ‘class’ sizes (thousands of students at a time) and spotty participation rates, coursework is usually limited to what a computer can automatically check, such as multiple choice or short-answer questions. In the education community, straight lecturing and multiple choice tests are considered the worst ways to foster student learning. When students pay tuition they aren’t paying for content that could have simply been read in a book: They’re paying to have deep interactions with experts in a field and the understanding of material that comes only from pointed discussion and individualized attention. MOOCs in their current form provide for accessible extracurricular enrichment, but they don’t rise to the quality of a well-developed college course.

MS: Well, if MOOCs can rise from what you describe to the level of even an introductory college course, the student community will have to be the tool they use to do it. By mentioning lecturing and testing you bring up the two tasks of a formal education: learning and assessment. The quality of MOOCs as an educational tool will depend on their ability to crowdsource these two endeavors.

You’re right that what a college classroom supplies is an environment that fosters discussions and individual attention, but online-required study groups that are assembled and scheduled by the MOOC might be able to adequately serve that purpose. Going over some guided discussion questions online with a group could be a very useful exercise, just as meeting classmates in the library to walk through study questions can be helpful. Combine that with lectures, new technologies and interactive online content and it may be possible to approximate a college-level experience.

Assessment would have to involve a similar mix of old and new systems. Multiple choice and short answer questions are not my favorite methods of assessment, to be sure, but given their robust presence in many traditional college classrooms it hardly seems fair to let their use lead us to discard MOOCs altogether.

Look, I’m not guaranteeing that these things are going to work, but I think it would be worth the experiment to attempt to render some particularly well-suited general education classes more affordable.

VP: What concerns me is not the best possible use of MOOCs, but how I think they will most likely be used. It’s true that many of the criticisms that I leveled against current MOOCs could easily be applied to most large introductory college courses, but that doesn’t invalidate them. In an effort to cut costs, universities have been pushing to increase class sizes and use inexperienced (cheaper) instructors to teach more and more courses. The way that most MOOCs are currently run exemplify a culmination of this pattern of creating effectively infinite class sizes and pre-recorded lectures where contacting the instructor is sometimes expressly forbidden.

I’d like to emphasize that my problem is with the way most MOOCs are currently implemented. I think you have correctly identified better blending of old and new technologies as MOOCs’ salvation. The old technology here is the small group, TA-facilitated discussion. MOOCs could be used to deliver material to students, but small discussions would give students the individualized context of the material that is necessary for learning. Small sections also allow for the use of a wider variety of assessment tools (oral exams, essays, presentations), thereby giving a more accurate and nuanced view of a student’s understanding of materials. As we introduce MOOCs into university curricula, we need to make sure they don’t exacerbate the flaws already in the system.

Matt Sowada and Vikram Patel, former hosts of American Reason, bring monthly political, social, and ethical musing to Little Village.