Free online college courses have been popping up across the Internet almost as quickly as pictures of Beyoncé’s multitude of fashion faux pas. These classes, referred to as MOOCs, an acronym for massive open online courses, have been the subjects of both celebration and derision. There are almost as many pundits who dismiss the courses as canned, re-packaged educational materials as there are who laud them as the next educational revolution.
As a President who feels strongly about education, Barack Obama has has embraced the phenomenon. The President has even gone so far as suggesting that students who enroll in MOOCs should be eligible to receive federal student aid.
As part of the policy agenda the White House released concurrently with the State of the Union address, President Obama included a proposal for the overhaul of college accreditation standards. A part of this proposal would allow MOOCs to charge tuition and receive federal aid money.
While this would result in greater competition among higher education institutions, it would also have an unfortunate result. By making the MOOCs into subsidy or tuition-hungry enterprises, the federal government would be short-circuiting the very qualities that make MOOCs attractive in the first place: unfettered learning; a communal mentality; and freedom from the bureaucracy that epitomizes college and brick-and-mortar learning in the United States. If the rigid metrics that come with the acceptance of federal student aid are imposed on MOOCs, we may never get find out just how good — or bad, for that matter — they can be as an educational paradigm.
While we wait to see what happens to MOOCs with respect to federal student aid, it still remains unclear whether this type of learning model is anything more than the latest iteration of the old-fashion correspondence courses that predate the collegiate distance-learning with an actual professor on the other end of the correspondence.
The reason MOOCs are so cheap is because there is no professor on the other end, typically. They are more like student learning cooperatives. It is by dodging the exorbitant costs of professors, their overhead and research that MOOCs are able to operate so cheaply. Indeed, in their current, limited niche they seem to have solved the very issue that colleges use as an excuse to drive up tuition: the need to to attract and pay for quality professors. It’s interesting to think that maybe professors are not needed at all… or at a much, much larger student-teacher ratio.
The online learning thing may not always be the best setting for students, either. Today, traditional online learners tend to be motivated, go-getters like working adults, dislocated workers in search of additional job skills and other seekers of basic intellectual stimulation: i.e., the polar opposite of stereotypical brick-and-mortar college students, who often can’t function academically without the discipline a professor/classroom model imposes on both their schedules and desire to learn.
Many students require the direct feedback of grading and question-answer sessions with a real live professor in order to maintain engagement with the class. While the ad-hoc nature of MOOCs currently lends them many advantages. There are still other hurdles, apart from the dearth of professoring that takes place in MOOC-land. The biggest obstacle, really, is the lack of accreditation for the classes.
Having said this, it does appear that accreditation may be on the horizon for many MOOCs. The American Council on Education (ACE) recommended five MOOCs for credit earlier this month. The courses are available on Coursera and are sponsored by real brick-and-mortar universities like Duke and Penn. In order to actually receive credit, however, the school in which you are enrolled has to agree to accept the credits, regardless of the ACE recommendation for accreditation.