Will MOOCs Change Higher Education for the Better?

Despite skepticism, MOOCs are expanding at a rapid rate.

MOOC, MOOCs, Free Online Courses, Coursera

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) give people from around the world a chance to take college courses without having to foot the hefty bill. (Photo: Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images)

Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Professor John Covach teaches a MOOC class about the history of rock music at the University of Rochester.

Never heard of a MOOC? It stands for massive open online course. Using innovative technology, MOOCs open up a free learning platform that defies brick and mortar classrooms and the traditional teaching methods such as lectures.

Covach, director of the Institute for Popular Music at the university, told TakePart that MOOCs open up higher education to the world.

“A lot of people first think that college students would be the most likely students for these courses,” he said. “But if you think about it for a second, you'll realize that those students already have access to college-level courses. Those who benefit the most are those who are not currently in school, either because they are already in a career or because they perhaps cannot afford school, or maybe just cannot commit the time to regularly scheduled classes.”

MOOCs, which have become the 21st century education trend, may shake up studying in ways that forever alter the way students learn.

This week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “I am very, very, very interested in MOOCs. We need some disruptive innovation in higher education.”

While colleges have long offered online classes, MOOCs are a different beast, where literally hundreds of thousands of students can partake in a class if they have an Internet connection.

Take Covach’s class.

He teaches two parts to his “The History of Rock Music” course for Coursera, a Silicon Valley-based company, which announced this week that it plans to partner with 10 state university systems in Colorado, Georgia, New York, Tennessee, and Texas to bolster MOOCs. Even though Covach doesn’t meet his students face-to-face, he says he sees enthusiasm and dedication to the course.  

“Maybe it’s because pop music is a big part of so many people’s lives, but the energy I see on the discussion forums is amazing,” he said. “The students immediately solved the problem of finding all the music and posting links, a task not so easy when you consider that this access needs to be worldwide. Before we could even respond with an explanation or solution, they already had it worked out. They post videos, additional songs, recommendations for books and extra reading—it’s wonderful and very gratifying.”

In order to share knowledge like Covach’s with as many people as possible, elite universities, including Harvard, M.I.T., Caltech, and the University of Texas, have collectively pledged tens of millions of dollars to MOOC development.

But not all is so rosy with MOOCs, say critics.

Some college faculty, including professors at Amherst University, recently voted against joining a MOOC program. Some fear that professors will become nothing more than glorified teaching assistants. Others argue that the passion and energy, which creates a positive learning atmosphere between teacher and students, vanishes online. Then there’s the theory that it’s easier to cheat in an online course.

Covach says he understands the downsides.

“If you have tens of thousands of students, for instance, it is very difficult to assess the work they do in anything like a personal way,” he said. “It is difficult to require a textbook, because textbooks can be expensive and the idea of MOOCs is for them to be as close to free as possible. For someone teaching music (as I am), musical pieces cannot be played or assigned if they are under copyright protection, since the licensing would be too expensive. You even have to be careful citing song lyrics, for fear of violating copyright.”

He says that the comparison of MOOCs to traditional college courses perhaps shouldn’t even be made. 

“The key here is simply not to think of a MOOC in comparison with a traditional college course; it really is something else and needs to conceived as such from the first stages of planning,” he said.

Currently, credit is not given for MOOC classes, but that is likely to change as more universities adopt MOOCs.

A recent Gallup/ Inside Higher Ed survey showed that only three percent of college presidents strongly believe that MOOCs will improve learning for all students, while two percent believe they will solve colleges’ financial challenges. Only eight percent believe that MOOCs will cut what students spend on higher education.

Covach expects more university faculty to get on board the MOOC train.

“Thought of as an opportunity for colleges and universities to share some of the wealth of knowledge they preserve and generate, MOOCs are a fantastic way to give back to the world at large,” he said. “And this is a mission that should be a central part of any institution of higher learning—not just to produce students who will get jobs, but to foster the pursuit of knowledge in general. In some small way, MOOCs raise the quality of intellectual life worldwide. I’m convinced this role will expand quickly and significantly in the future—probably in the near future.”
 

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