Nothing moves fast in higher ed, except for MOOCs. A year ago very few people had heard of the acronym for Massive Open Online Course. Now stories about the courses attracting tens of thousands of people for free are almost a weekly occurrence in The New York Times.
Times columnist Tom Friedman writes about MOOCs so often, they've become his next World is Flat. One of the largest MOOC providers, Coursera, is barely a year old and already has 2.5 million students, 215 courses, and 33 college and university partners.
Because MOOCs are attracting so much attention and hype, they are often conflated as being the silver-bullet solution to all that ails higher education. They're not. But that doesn't mean they'll be yesterday's news by this time next year. Just like online shopping didn't put brick-and-mortar stores out of business, online education can co-exist along traditional residential campuses. Shoppers need and like both forms of purchasing and college students like both forms of course delivery when they offer flexibility. Here are five ways MOOCs will and will not change higher ed in the coming years:
Colleges search far and wide to find the perfect class each year, and for some, just to fill their freshmen class. Just like dating and marriage, sometimes those matches work out, sometimes they don't. One-third of students now transfer colleges once before earning a degree.Another 400,000 drop out of college each year. If applicants take a MOOC or two from one of the colleges they are considering, it allows the institution to better assess the readiness of potential students. What MOOCs won't do: Some MOOC evangelists picture the courses outright replacing the admissions process (the SATs, the essays, the applications, etc). For now, MOOCs won't be more than just one piece of the puzzle in admissions.
Four in ten freshmen arrive on campuses unprepared for college-level work and must enroll in remedial reading, writing, or math courses. Some 75 percent of colleges offer at least one remedial course, which is nothing more than a high-school class. MOOCs can reduce those numbers if some students could take MOOCs to brush up on what they don't know well enough before they get to college, for free and with little risk.
What MOOCs won't do: Students who aren't ready for college-level math and reading unlikely have the discipline to keep up with a free online course. So MOOCs won't work in isolation for that portion of remedial students who need to relearn entire subjects.
Hybrid courses (combination of face-to-face and online) have the potential to transform how students learn, how quickly they finish a course, and as a result, lower the cost of going to college.
Early research shows that hybrid courses are just as engaging for students. MOOCs can provide the online content for a hybrid course, reducing the cost to colleges and time of professors to replicate the creation of course content across every single campus.
What MOOCs won't do: Provide content for every single professor who wants to create a hybrid course. MOOCs are likely to provide the best content for introductory courses, at least at first.
Rather than enroll in that pricey professional certificate program at the college down the street, you'll take a few MOOCs and pay for a verified certificate at the end of each course for a few hundred bucks. Eventually, MOOCs will put bundle together a few courses into a curriculum that will lead to a certificate equal to what colleges are now charging thousands of dollars for.
What MOOCs won't do: Replace the bachelor's degree. A degree is more than simply a collection of 120 credits. A structured undergraduate curriculum from an institution still matters, at least until someone else figures out how to copy that for a much lower price.
Last fall, Dartmouth College became the latest school to stop offering college credit for AP courses. Because MOOCs are essentially an outgrowth of college courses, schools could start granting credit for MOOCs over AP.
What MOOCs won't do: Colleges are still concerned with students coming to campus with too many credits earned elsewhere. Some, like Dartmouth, want to be sure students get the full campus experience;others want to protect their bottom line and be sure they get tuition dollars for as many courses as they can.