Cut Through the Hype, and MOOCs Still Have Had a Lasting Impact (CHE)

March 13, 2015

To some people in higher education, “MOOC” has become a punch line. The initial hype around so-called massive open online courses was so intense — promising a “tsunami” of change, according to one New York Times columnist, and a shuttering of most traditional colleges, according to one of the trend’s pioneers — that the reality was doomed to fall short.

“In some ways MOOCs have become the love child of a relationship that we regret,” says George Siemens, an academic-technology expert at the University of Texas at Arlington who coined the term while teaching an experimental online course seven years ago. “You don’t even say it without someone rolling their eyes.”

Despite the eye rolls, MOOCs haven’t gone away. A growing number of colleges offer them — more than 400 institutions, including 22 of the top 25 most selective universities, according to Class Central, a blog that tracks MOOCs. Venture-capital firms have thrown hundreds of millions of dollars into companies making or supporting the free courses.

So what are the lasting effects of MOOCs, according to those who help spark this revolution?

Perhaps the biggest legacy of free online courses is unintended: increased pressure on colleges to spend more money on teaching. Colleges spend $39,000 to $325,000 for each MOOC they make, according to an analysis last week in eCampus News. And many colleges are building new infrastructure to help produce the courses, hiring instructional designers or putting up studio facilities.

A commitment to creating MOOCs also can have consequences for overall enrollment. Prospective students now sometimes peek at MOOCs as they shop for colleges, and they can see the difference between a good course and a lackluster one. In that way, the courses function like Amazon’s “look inside the book” feature, which lets customers read free samples of books before they buy.

Viewed in a certain light, MOOCs may end up raising the cost of higher education, as colleges enter a new arms race to improve their support systems for teaching.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Many higher-education experts argue that such spending on improving teaching is long overdue, and that today’s digital-native students demand new styles of instruction. “Universities ignored the early wave of innovation in education — at least the larger ones did,” says Mr. Siemens.

He also argues that focusing on cost and efficiency is the wrong way for nonprofit colleges to evaluate their efforts to improve teaching. Teaching, after all, is full of intangibles, and it’s linked to academe’s mission to turn out responsible citizens. “The experiment will have failed if we talk in terms of management, in terms of efficiency, instead of advancing the ability of everyone to learn,” he argues.

In talking with a handful of MOOC pioneers like Mr. Siemens, here are some other key lessons from the first few years of experimentation.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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