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What comes to mind when we talk about “higher education”? Old brick buildings covered in ivy, where young people (or their parents) pay incredible sums of money to sit in lecture halls and seminar rooms, studying lofty ideas and possibly even preparing for a career: the old “ivory tower”. Many feel excluded, and many opt out because it just doesn’t fit right. The shaky economic outlook of recent decades has caused a widespread loss of faith in this traditional model.

Even for those privileged enough to attend college in the first place, the crippling burden of student debt begs the question “Is it worth it?”.

There’s a new educational option, and it’s flinging open the doors and lowering the barriers. It’s called Massive Open Online Courses, more often referred to as MOOCs. You can log in from home and fit your coursework around your work schedule, allowing working adults of all ages to participate. You can participate from anywhere in the world, giving new meaning to the idea of multicultural education. And perhaps most revolutionary of all: enrollment costs a fraction of a traditional course, and many MOOCs are free. Whether you’re hoping to acquire new practical skills to get a better job or simply have a thirst for intellectual inquiry, there’s a MOOC for you.

A Naturally Growing Movement

Before MOOCs, there were correspondence courses conducted by “snail mail”, and lectures broadcast by radio and television. The self-directed nature of these remote classes meant that “real life” often got in the way: the completion rate was under 3%. Experiments with online learning began as soon as we understood that the Internet was here to stay — but MOOCs took off in earnest around 2011, when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun offered, appropriately enough, an online class on Artificial Intelligence. To everyone’s surprise, enrollment quickly reached 160,000: the largest course in history!

A wave of excitement built as MOOCs started popping up in many top US universities, and all over the globe. Online universities were launched, including Thrum’s tech-oriented Udacity; Harvard’s edX (which has expanded to include over 50 universities’ offerings); and the multi-affiliated Coursera, now linked to 118 sources. Most courses combine engaging video lessons, interviews, and visual aids, interspersed with frequent reviews to integrate what has been covered.

Clearly, a class requiring no building maintenance or student transportation comes with a dramatically reduced carbon footprint. No fuel is burned getting to and from school, or heating and cooling and lighting the school. In many cases, the information presented in the MOOC has already been prepared for a traditional classroom-based course, so all that is required is “repackaging” and tweaking the material for more effective web-based presentation. Professors have the chance to reach thousands of additional students, many of whom have never dreamed of accessing such educational opportunities, due to finances, geography, or personal obligations.

MOOC Challenges and Outcomes

MOOCs started with big dreams. Educators imagined improving the lives of the disadvantaged, adding a revolutionary democracy to the world of higher education. Further innovation may be necessary to reach those goals: so far, the typical demographic of a successful MOOC student is very similar to a successful conventional university student. The average MOOC student is still young, white, male, and well-educated (more than 80% already have a bachelor’s or more advanced degree). Reaching students in cultural minorities, developing nations, or impoverished communities may require addressing barriers which are harder to define, or control.

Another possible hurdle is maintaining institutional motivation to provide quality MOOCs. Some educators seem to be getting cynical about whether MOOCs will benefit universities in the long run. In some cases, MOOCs may help recruit new students, but otherwise, they are not money-makers. Like many institutions, colleges and universities are facing tight financial times, despite charging what seem to outsiders to be exorbitantly high fees. And of course no one wants to innovate themselves out of a job: if more students can be taught with fewer instructors, some will lose employment, as well as their attachment to a face-to-face model of instruction that predates Socrates.

MOOCs also tend to have a high failure rate and an even higher drop-out rate. Completion is estimated at around 10%. Without the structure of the face-to-face interaction and peer support, the motivation for success — or even showing up — appears to flag. According to the New York Times, “Nearly all MOOCs originate from the world’s top universities. Their instructors are accustomed to teaching the brightest students, and may not understand the motivations, academic difficulties and self-discipline of the average student.” For MOOCs to achieve their ideals, they may need to become more grounded in the real-world problems of their students — the ones who didn’t ace the Harvard entrance requirements.

An accessible alternative to the Ivy League has existed for decades: it’s called community college. These regional, non-selective places of learning offer practical courses designed for working adults, and account for a surprising 80% of all American colleges. Unfortunately, these campuses are often struggling financially, with uneven quality of instructors and high dropout rates. Converting more of their offerings to on-line courses could potentially reduce their overhead costs and increase revenue, if a way can be found to equal the quality and effectiveness of the learning experience through a computer.

Are You Well-Suited to Learn Outside the Box?

What might MOOCs be missing? Residential college campuses ideally foster an atmosphere of community and collaborative learning: contact with peers hopefully reinforces motivation and integration of the material. Online, there are plenty of opportunities for collaboration, and students can be networked together in small groups to discuss their work or cooperate on projects. With video conferencing, even “face-to-face” contact is possible. The only thing missing is the casual, between-class social interaction, which may function either as a problematic distraction or a positive energizing influence. Those who work well alone will adapt easily to MOOCs.

Another traditional function of elite universities is networking. Part of the draw of a top-rated college is the elusive promise of meeting people who may help you to progress in life. Would Bill Clinton, born into a lower-middle-class Arkansas family, have had the same opportunities if he had skipped Oxford and Yale and opted for a MOOC education? Doing away with those kinds of Ivy League advantages is tough, even in our democratic society. For most of us, our dreams are simpler and more skills-based — if you’re not concerned about “who you know”, MOOCs might suit your needs.

If you choose to pursue an online degree, how will that affect your job prospects? Increasingly, employers are accepting the validity of a MOOC education, and even recognizing that the accomplishment of earning a degree from home while juggling family and work obligations speaks volumes about self-discipline. Inevitably, a few hiring managers retain biases against online degrees, but that appears to be rapidly changing as more and more students, and more prestigious universities, go online. Those who have personal experience with online classes, in particular, tend to “get it”: the quality of instruction, and the rigor of the work, can be equivalent to a “bricks and mortar” class. Unless you’re hoping for a job in a particularly “old school” industry, a MOOC education should look just fine on your resume.

As we skyrocket into the future of education, we may need to ask different questions and let go of old models. Completion may not always be the point: much can be learned and utilized even if the final page is not reached. Sometimes knowledge actually is its own reward. We might be drawn to browse UC Berkeley’s “The Science of Happiness” in hopes of improving our own emotional life, or Stanford’s “Equine Nutrition” if we’re concerned about our horse’s health. Many offerings on climate change, international relations, or food economics are relevant to all concerned citizens, and the diploma is optional.

We can access a MOOC at any time, from any place, to help us answer a “how-to” question which will move us forward in a workplace puzzle or personal project. Online education is a living, changing landscape, with room for diverse voices — the questions of how to optimize internet learning for all are always up for debate. Follow your curiosity, and watch your world expand.