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September 04, 2012 2:22 PM Why Massive Online?

By Daniel Luzer

One of the big trends in higher education news is the growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free, non-degree classes that an unlimited number of people can take over the Internet.

Some believe such courses offer great potential to make a college education available to all. It’s a little more complicated than that, argues Alison Byerly in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Byerly, a professor and former provost at Middlebury College, writes that many colleges have no business offering such courses:

Colleges that are contemplating a new venture, such as a MOOC or other online-learning offering, need to ask themselves the fundamental question: Is this consistent with the unique mission of our institution? Not, Are MOOC’s a good idea?, or even, Are they inevitable?, but: Should we be offering them right now?

The most important question to consider might be “why?” Do colleges want to offer MOOCs for the public good, or do they want to do this because some fancy colleges are doing it too? Because offering MOOCs is not easy.

The trouble is that students taking such courses will not be the same students who are actually enrolled in the regular college. Should MOOCs supplement or replicate existing courses, or are they an entirely different form of education. The demands of those taking such courses will be real. Does the college care about their needs?

This is not a money making endeavor, after all. The institution better have a pretty good reason to make this commitment. Byerly:

I hope it is because your institution is prepared to make a substantial commitment to the principles of open access, your faculty members are excited about curricular experimentation, and your trustees believe that asserting a leadership role here is worth the investment.
If your honest answer is, Because all the cool guys are doing it, then I can hear my mother’s next question: If Stanford jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too?

Beyond that, if Stanford’s already doing it, why do you need to? If Stanford offers an introductory class in macroeconomics or biology or computer science, why does it need a competitor? Are the courses really that different?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • cmdicely on September 05, 2012 4:48 PM:

    The trouble is that students taking such courses will not be the same students who are actually enrolled in the regular college.

    One of the reasons colleges offer these courses is prestige/goodwill/marketing. Think of them as free samples -- minus some key features, of course, as free attention-getter offerings always are -- of the for-pay product the school offers.

    Of course, another reason not-for-profit schools offer them is that there "unique mission" is education, and charging for traditional courses is just a way to pay the bills associated with offering them. MOOCs have extremely low marginal costs per seat, and while some resources are needed to support them, traditional tuition-based systems aren't the way, since the costs mostly aren't associated with the seats in the class.

    This is not a money making endeavor, after all.

    This is, in many cases, only true in the sense that many money-making operations are introduced in non-money-making forms before they are converted to make money. The organizations that are offering MOOCs -- many of which are for-profit startups affiliated with universities rather than universities themselves -- have suggested several possible mechanism for monetizing them once they have critical mass. They may remain free-to-students, but they are definitely intended as money-making endeavors.

    Beyond that, if Stanfordís already doing it, why do you need to? If Stanford offers an introductory class in macroeconomics or biology or computer science, why does it need a competitor?

    Why would the answer to that be any different than it is for for-pay classes (on campus or distant learning), or other educational materials like textbooks? Diversity of options is a good thing.

  • Walker on September 05, 2012 7:17 PM:

    I say the following from personal experience:

    They are an important recruiting tool.

    The best high school students are asking universities "Where are your MOOCs?" They are using MOOCs as a way to sample a university before attending. If school X and school Y are comparable and competing for the same students, and school X offers MOOCs while school Y does not, school Y is going to lose some of those students.