Weighing the Pros and Cons of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

This Sunday’s New York Times featured the quarterly Education Life, which is all about higher ed, teachers, public and private schools, tuition, scholarships, financial aid and student loans. Lauren Pappano declared 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC.”

In case you’ve been living under a rock, MOOCs are massive open online courses. A handful of edtech startups have been working to make educational courses more widely available for people around the world. Pappano named edX, Udacity and Coursera as “The Big Three,” or, the ones to watch. The big promise of MOOCs is that they open up quality courses and valuable educational content to more students anywhere in the world. Pappano explained how MOOCS differ from a typical online couse:

Traditional online courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors. The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, credit-less and, well, massive.

The MOOC has not yet been perfected, though. Some wonder whether learning can still take place when it occurs on such a large scale, with tens (or hundreds) of thousands of students enrolling in a certain course. Plus, Pappano also warns that grading can be complicated. You can just imagine how a subjective course like creative writing or poetry may be hard to grade fairly, especially on a massive scale. Additionally, cheating can be rampant. Furthermore many students fall behind or drop out of MOOCs because they lack skills needed to succeed or are intimidated by the first lesson.

What determines whether MOOCs will fail or succeed? The New York Times article noted that Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois, Springfield, has declared three requirements for a successful online learning experience:

  • Quality of material covered in the course
  • Engagement of the teacher
  • Interaction among students

With courses on such a, well, massive scale, it can be difficult for teachers to connect with students in a meaningful way. While edX and Coursera have partnered with major well-known universities to create and distribute courses, Udacity asserts that it is more important to weigh an educator’s ability to connect with students and provide a fun experience over credentials.

Another concern some have with MOOCs is that the course will not count for college credit after they put in the time and effort to complete it. The tide is turning though–and quickly. We recently shared the news on Technapex that Antioch is now the first U.S. institution to offer college credit for certain Coursera courses. We reached out to Coursera and co-founder Andrew Ng this week and he said, “As the quality and pace of acceleration of online education have improved so rapidly in recent months, we expect that this will be the first of a number of institutions to begin offering course credit to students who successfully complete courses on Coursera.” Additionally, President of edX, Dr. Agarwal, predicted in the New York Times article that students will be able to recieve credit sooner than later. He said, “a year from now, campuses will give credit for people with edX certificates.”

A major benefit of MOOCs is their low cost. With student debt on the rise and cost of college becoming an increasing concern, MOOCs offer an appealing solution because they can significantly reduce fees.

To be able to deliver quality educational courses to more people around the globe and at a lower cost is worthy goal. Despite existing challenges, it seems the benefits are appealing enough for startups to continue to tackle the more difficult aspects of MOOCs. We believe it will only be a matter of time before MOOCs becomes the norm for students worldwide.