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MOOCs: Fad or Future?

By Corey Murray

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, arrived with great fanfare on college campuses. There’s no denying MOOCs’ ability to deliver a wider array of subjects to more students, whatever their location. But skeptics have begun to question whether the technology has or ever will live up to its promise.

By now, we’ve all heard about the power and supposed promise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, as they’re called. If you’re like a lot of educators, you’re probably sick of hearing about it.

I can’t blame you.

Two years ago, big thinkers and technology entrepreneurs, including Bill Gates, hailed MOOCs as one of the biggest developments to shake up education since the personal computer — maybe bigger.

You couldn’t attend an educational conference or get through an episode of CBS News without hearing about the transformative power of the technology and the momentum it was building in schools, especially on college campuses. Famed Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen said the technology showed the “early hallmarks of disruption.” The New York Times even went so far as to dub 2012 The Year of the MOOC.

But it wasn’t long before MOOCs, like so many other fringe disruptors, began to crack under the pressure of mainstream adoption. The allure of granting students anywhere in the world access to live and recorded lectures delivered by rock-star educators was and still is appealing to a lot of colleges. But high drop-out rates, disagreement about whether these programs should be credit-bearing, and unforeseen or unanticipated costs are just a few of the nagging issues that have kept the technology from reaching its once stratospheric potential.

Will MOOCs change the world? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean they have no place in higher education. As we consider what role MOOCs will play in our future — they will almost certainly play one, even if it’s not as grand a role as originally envisioned — let’s review what we know.

1. Online education is nothing new.

Online learning has been around since the dawn of the Internet, and distance education has been a mainstay in colleges for years. But two events conspired to make MOOCs so appealing, so fast: An increase in bandwidth on campuses and in homes and the rise of mobile computing ensured that the courses could, possibly for the first time, actually reach the masses; and punishing budget cuts, combined with an intense need to serve more students, forced colleges to reach for cost-effective solutions to a difficult problem.

2. There is potential in MOOCs.

Put aside lingering doubts about undue corporate influence and airs of elitism and it is nearly impossible to deny the potential benefits of the technology. While community colleges have been slow to embrace the movement, it’s tough to argue with the idea of ubiquitous online courses featuring insights from world-class lecturers.

The idea that such courses could be recorded and distributed online at little or no cost to community college students as part of a more holistic, hybrid-learning experience only serves to solidify the potential of the approach, especially as colleges consider new applications for mobile and distance learning.

3. Still, there are doubts.

Not everyone is sold on the idea. Some have questioned whether MOOCs display the rigor and discipline expected of credit-bearing learning. Others have pointed to high drop-out rates in courses offered by leading providers, such as Udacity and Coursera, as proof that the technology is not yet ready for prime time.

While community colleges and other institutions of higher education remain open to new approaches, especially those that promise to improve completion rates, critics of the technology question whether MOOCs in their current form are capable of moving the needle in the right direction.

In San Diego, a group of community college leaders recently decried the MOOC movement, labeling it a “a new business model on higher education, which opens the door for wide-scale profiteering.” In their dissent, the educators quoted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan: “The last thing we want to do is hand out paper that doesn’t mean anything.”

The last thing we want to do is hand out paper that doesn’t mean anything.

But as educator Larry Cuban astutely pointed out in The Washington Post last year, there is a  “distinction between delivering a course and teaching it.” Just because a college offers MOOCs doesn’t mean it has to rely on technology and its limitations as a sole mechanism for delivering learning. There’s no rule that says teachers can’t integrate the courses, in part or in whole, into the broader classroom experience.

And maybe that’s the point Bill Gates and others are trying to make?

“I’d be the first to say that this is the period of experimentation,” Gates said at the 2013 Association of Community College Trustees Leadership Congress, which was covered by eCampus News. “But as a community, we will learn much faster if people jump in and engage in this experimentation.”

There’s little doubt that MOOCs have a ways to go. But in this era of innovation and change, it’s hard to argue that colleges have much to lose by keeping an open mind.

Are MOOCs a good way for community colleges to expand learning opportunities for students? Or do they give short shrift to the evolving goals of the college experience?

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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