Online Courses, “Similar Enough”?
by Daniel Luzer
The latest big thing in education technology involves discussion around massive online open courses (MOOCs), free classes offered by universities designed for large-scale participation and open access via the Internet. Until now participants didn’t receive academic credit for these courses, merely a certificate or a letter explaining successful completion.
But now, according to an article in the New York Times, the American Council on Education, an organization representing college administrators, has announced a plan to consider offering credit for these courses. This is certainly an understandable idea, but we should consider what this really means for education. It’s not a good thing.
Tamar Lewin writes:
On Tuesday, the American Council on Education, the leading umbrella group for higher education, and Coursera, a Silicon Valley MOOC provider, announced a pilot project to determine whether some free online courses are similar enough to traditional college courses that they should be eligible for credit.
The council’s credit evaluation process will begin early next year, using faculty teams to begin to assess how much students who successfully complete Coursera MOOCs have learned. Students who want to take the free classes for credit would have to pay a fee to take an identity-verified, proctored exam. If the faculty team deems the course worthy of academic credit, students who do well could pay for a transcript to submit to the college of their choice.
A pilot project like this is as a good idea. Right now we really have no idea if participants get as much from these online programs as they would taking real classes.
That being said, the trouble with merely assessing if the courses are merely “similar enough” is that this is, ultimately, a pretty weak measure of quality.
If some MOOCs are “similar enough” does that mean this is a good direction for higher education? In truth they’re probably very similar to courses offered by many real colleges (indeed, MOOCs are designed to be that way). The problem is these aren’t the good courses; they’re the anonymous, impersonal, 500-student lecture courses with high failure rates in which colleges pack students to save money. These are, arguably, the very worst classes offered in the contemporary university.
The fact that MOOCs might be similar enough to these courses shouldn’t indicate that MOOCs are good; they just mean colleges are offering a lot of bad courses.