Massive open online courses represent the future of globalized education. All over the world, universities are enrolling thousands of participants in American and other course platforms, such as the 6 million strong Coursera, and edX led by Harvard and MIT. As of this month, one million users are signed up for 16 University of Pennsylvania courses and 83,000 for the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology course “The Science of Gastronomy.” Tsinghua, Peking, and Shanghai Jiaotong have partnered with U.S. platforms, and Open University of Great Britain recently released FutureLearn, which includes a consortium of British universities as well as the British Museum.
Motivations for enrolling in MOOCs include zero cost, flexibility, and access to thousands of unique individuals all trying to learn. There is a certain flavor in learning with 150,000 students—all with varying reasons for attending class—ranging from company-ordered to pure, unadulterated intellectualism. You no longer have to be enrolled in a university to access new and exciting information. In this way, MOOCs are breaking down barriers to education. Business leaders take advantage of the credit-less courses because many force students to collaborate in small groups due to the instructor not being able to present individual feedback. These large scale classes utilize the same lecture-based format as a traditional classroom, but also incorporate virtual discussion boards and timed quizzes.
Of course, there are many problematic aspects of this style of learning—including the fact that many students are simply not prepared for college level work, much less in an environment that is not conducive to one-on-one professor-student learning. Cheating has been found and grading can be subjective due to the sheer size of the class. Some may fear that the onset of massive enrollment, free online courses that could potentially be for-credit down the road may lead to the closing of universities. A study at the University of Pennsylvania discounts this theory as a poll conducted with 35,000 MOOC users from 200 countries found that the majority of users were well educated, well-off, and were enrolled for professional development or personal interest reasons.
More studies suggest concern for longevity should be directed at the MOOCs themselves, and not toward the future of colleges and universities. Although many participants are registered for courses, the completion rate is nowhere near 100%. A study conducted at Chinese University found that of the 23,000 enrolled in a course entitled “The Role of Renminbi in the International Monetary System,” only 1,600 took the final quiz. That’s barely 10% completion.
But, what does it even mean to embrace MOOCs as a new way of education? On the one hand, there is the current pathway which seems to be aimed at the general self-elected education of the masses. This is simultaneously an altruistic and lofty goal, but the nature of the internet allows its survival, at least in the here and now. If MOOCs continue on this pathway, their primary purpose will be to provide certificates for professionals who need a dynamic solution to continuing education. They will serve the purpose of entertaining people with agile minds and spare time for a little indulgent learning. In this way, MOOCs will remain harmless as they won’t really impede on the money-making elitism of higher education.
Then there is the other, possibly more horrifying path. What if MOOCs were to completely replace classroom-based higher education? How could universities operate without the application process? How does it make sense to admit students without any measures of selectivity or academic standards? This notion of college no longer being an academic aim but instead a universal convenience is terrifying. But why? Perhaps because this new system would make a mockery of the stratified expensive mess that American higher education. Of course, we are a long way away from any potential structural change and the likelihood is minuscule at best. However, it is worth it to pay attention to why MOOCs are being viewed as ground breaking.