BERGER: The democratizing power of MOOCs

The Batten School’s MOOC initiative is an important step towards realizing the potential of online education

Massive Open Online Courses are free online course studies offered to the public that are becoming more common in higher education. Recently, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy developed its first MOOC this semester for Professor Gerald Warburg’s class Public Policy Challenges of the 21st century. This class will focus on U.S.-China relations, health policy and defense policy, to name a few, and will introduce speakers like U.S. Senator Tim Kaine and White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. As a student in this class, it is exciting to know this opportunity is being shared and that the information I am learning will be offered to those who are unable to enroll in college or who lack access to these types of higher-ed classes.

MOOCs are successful because they democratize education. People around the world without direct access to academic institutions can now engage in classroom learning. Additionally, MOOCs are cost effective, and people from all over, of all ages, can learn about any subject, taught by qualified professors.

Other schools around the country have already created their own MOOCs for a wide variety of classes, and the University is among those. Some of the classes offered here at the University include The Kennedy Half Century, taught by professor Larry Sabato, and How Things Work, taught by Louis Bloomfield.

The importance of MOOCs has been discussed before, but what makes this MOOC unique is that it is the Batten School’s first. Truly embodying its title, the Batten School is quite literally leading the way for Public Policy MOOCs. Not many public policy schools around the country seem to offer MOOCs, and none that do offer a course about the discussion of modern policy issues nor have such a wide variety of distinguished guest speakers. Professor Warburg’s MOOC is the first of its kind and is a way for the Batten School to establish itself among other competitive public policy schools.

On the other side of the debate, some say MOOCs are too expensive for universities and also enable plagiarism, since one of the biggest challenges of MOOCs is the assessment of student performance. However, as with any course, cheating will always be an issue, and that should not be a reason to dismiss these courses. Additionally, some MOOC platforms are taking steps to solve the problem. Udacity and edX use test centers for their online courses and Coursera has attempted to use plagiarism-detection software. As for the expensiveness of the classes, in order to create a full online experience offered to the public for little to no money, the burden of the cost is placed entirely on the University. It is understandable that not every class can be made into a MOOC. However, I do believe all universities should strive to offer at least one online open course as a way to contribute to the accessibility of education.

Last year, Professor Bloomfield was quoted by The Cavalier Daily saying he struggled with the hours it took to create the MOOC and that he was skeptical about the success of MOOCs as a whole due to their high cost and time commitment. However, he did mention undeniable benefits. “I have a grocery bag full of letters and postcards from grateful people all over the world and in all walks of life — seven-year-olds and octogenarians, home-schoolers and retirees, teachers and physicists, business people and homemakers, you name it,” he said. “And I have letters from families — parents and children taking my MOOC together. Is that cool or what?”

Despite the few problems with MOOCs, it is advantageous to offer them, and doing so cultivates an environment in which education is easily accessible. The Batten School especially will benefit from its new MOOC and hopefully will gain recognition on a national scale.

If you have never taken a MOOC, think about looking into it, and if you know someone who is interested in auditing a class online, suggest it as an option. I’ve written about the danger of evolving technology and it’s consequences before, but in this instance I praise the internet platform for classes and recognize the benefits of an online form of education.

Meredith Berger is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at m.berger@cavalierdaily.com.

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