We should embrace massive open online courses as markers of a higher-education revolution
If I asked you to picture a lecture in your head, it would probably look like this: 200 of your closest friends in a hall somewhere on Grounds, all listening — or, at least, pretending to listen — to a professor as he gesticulates wildly. In a brief survey of the people sitting nearby, you see that the girl beside you is taking notes very intensely; the guy in front has his head down; the girl next to him is on Tumblr. You are tempted to calculate exactly how much tuition money Dopey and Tumblr girl are wasting. Fifty minutes go by, and class is dismissed.
Now picture this for a lecture: Somewhere in France an elderly lady in a nursing home is watching a video on her computer. The video is of a professor from the University of Pennsylvania. In India, a family man is watching the same video after the kids have gone to bed. The French lady and Indian man, despite never having met in person, are grading each other’s essays on Emily Dickinson. They, along with thousands of other people around the world, are taking a course on American poetry for free — but not for credit. Forget YOLO; MOOC is probably the most important acronym coined last year. For those not in the know, it stands for “massive open online course” — and it is going to single-handedly revolutionize education.
The concept is simple. Take a regular university course, preferably from a big-name institution, and put it online for free. In light of huge fallout caused by skyrocketing tuition and student debt, MOOCs have garnered great attention in higher-education circles. The University’s own Board of Visitors cited a lack of initiative toward online learning as part of the reason for its attempted ouster of University President Teresa Sullivan last summer.
The University, along with 32 other institutions, in July announced a partnership with Coursera, the leading company hosting MOOCs, to create several online courses. Offerings include the perennial favorite “How Things Work” taught by Physics Prof. Lou Bloomfield and “Know Thyself” by Philosophy Prof. Mitch Green. Some are understandably tenuous in giving approval to this brave new world of MOOCs. How will teaching change when it is transplanted from a lecture hall to the tubes of the internet? How will professors prevent online students from cheating? How will work be graded for thousands upon thousands of students? The MOOC craze only started in 2011, when Sebastian Thrun of Stanford posted an artificial intelligence class online, so the field is currently in its infancy. There are no clear answers. Everything is up in the air. But instead of shying away from this great experiment, we should embrace the opportunity to participate. By releasing courses from the ivory towers of elite universities to the general public, MOOCs are democratizing knowledge. That should be enough to say they are transformative agents of good, as history has shown us that technology that increases access to knowledge greatly benefits society. It might be too early to liken Thrun’s AI course to the Gutenberg Bible, but it is easy to imagine the same air of revolution that is brewing today back in 15th-century Germany.
Any talk of the future of MOOCs is pure speculation at this point. But I do not think the rise of online education means the death of the university. MOOCs will not be the end-all-be-all of education. Some courses are just incompatible with the online model: Imagine having to take a chemistry or physics lab in front of your laptop. There’s also the fact that universities do not just teach students. A large part of their function is to conduct research. Being a student at a university gives you access to experts of many diverse fields and allows you to participate in research projects, which is impossible to do with MOOCs.
Because MOOCs are well-suited for non-traditional students (i.e., those who are not attending college right after high school), they seem to be suitable competitors against for-profit colleges — which is a good thing, since many for-profit colleges are predatory and are in business not to educate but rather to make as much money as possible. Once the kinks have been worked out, it seems plausible that working adults would rather take a MOOC and get certification from a brand-name university cheaply to advance their career than to take out absurd amounts of loans to attend for-profit colleges, as is the case presently.
Traditional universities today are facing an existential crisis, as future students try to justify accruing massive amounts of debt to attend college when it is apparent that many recent graduates are not finding adequate employment. There is talk of a student debt bubble analogous to the housing bubble. Add MOOCs into the mix, and it becomes clear that higher education is at a crossroads. Revolution is in the air, and substantial change to the way we as a society educate our citizens is almost inevitable. Because of this inevitability, reticence is not the adequate response; instead, we should embrace change, because it will come whether we like it or not. Embracing change includes being open to all possibilities — with MOOCs offering great solutions to the hard problems in education that we face today, there is no reason to not invest in them.
_Rolph Recto’s column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at