I have a confession.
MOOC… that’s that sound a cow makes, right? Err… maybe it’s some kind of sketchy dairy cow club then? I got nothing.
Until the summer of 2014, I’d never even heard of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Somewhat ironically, I was first introduced to them through an online computer course I enrolled in over the summer for my undergraduate degree. As it happens, MOOCs have sparked a bit of a debate about how they will change education, because the courses are offered free of charge to anyone with Internet access around the world. As a result, there can be thousands of students enrolled in a given course.
Personally, as a university student whose diet consists of cheap pasta and whatever veggies are in season, I was intrigued by this because my tuition costs had once again risen. And here, just under my nose, were courses that I could register for and complete for free while sitting in my pajamas.
It sounded too good to be true, so I quickly did some research and it didn’t take long for me to realize the incredible potential that MOOCs have to change the economy by providing people with the education they need for free.
Higher education equals a higher-earning job which leads to spending more money within the community.
After all, a higher earning potential is usually correlated with a high level of education. This means that anyone with a computer and Internet access would have the opportunity to secure a high-paying job without the financial barriers of tuition, rent, etc.
I continued reading up on MOOCs, but found that I was quickly coming up with a growing list of questions that didn’t quite seem to have definite answers. For example: Were people able to receive credit for the courses they completed ? Could they eventually replace post-secondary institutions if no one needed to physically go to class? How would this impact researchers if universities began closing down?
To try and explore some of these questions in detail and give you as much information as possible, I’ve decided to explore the existing issues associated with each letter of the acronym “MOOC.” So put your thinking caps on, because it’s time to re-learn the alphabet… MOOC style.
M: is for Massive
Because MOOCs are open to anyone around the world with Internet access, the result is often a blended community that can include thousands of participants. Some could be students looking to test out a course before they pay thousands of dollars to take it at university, some may be people who are updating their education for a job, some could just be interested in learning for fun, and some might be high school students looking to put something extra on their college or university application.
So because these people can come from anywhere in the world, the online community is a diverse community full of participants of varying ages and backgrounds. For example, there was a free programming course offered by the University of Toronto and one of the students who participated resided in Malaysia. The professor of the course, Paul Gries, commented by saying:
“These are people I’d never, ever have imagined teaching. This is a big rush” (Professor Gries).
This is just to show a brief example of the kind of community that might arise in such a course.
…Yeah, I think I need to see the prof in her office hours for this one. Oh wait, there are no office hours for MOOCs.
However, these “massive” courses concerned me, as I often felt that my professors were limited in their time to review assignments with me as they had a couple hundred students to see to. How would this change if they had 15,000 students? Wouldn’t the students just be lost with such a low professor to student ratio? Could they ever find answers to their questions?
A potential answer to this question came via Dr. Couros, a URegina academic who experimented by inviting 200 experts from around the world to participate in a mini MOOC. While 200 participants is a much smaller number than 15,000 (and they were experts) the result of the study was still surprising and worth mentioning:
“Instead of the ratio being one instructor to 20 students, it ended up being 10 mentors to every student, which was sort of amazing” (Dr. Couros).
So maybe students could still receive help and guidance throughout the course after all, but we do have to keep in mind that experts with degrees already don’t behave the same way students do. Therefore, all we can meaningfully say about this finding is that MOOCs do encourage innovation and collaboration – between experts. After all, it’s students who are most likely to be taking the course, because they’re precisely NOT experts!
But there might be hope that students will mentor each other in the same way. This idea of collaboration and group learning via MOOCs is further explored in a TED talk by MIT professor Anant Agarwal. An example he cited was how a student posted a question to the course discussion board, and it was incorrectly answered by student who was quickly corrected by yet another student within a matter of minutes. Ultimately, I think this demonstrates how students can learn from each other’s mistakes and teach each other while enhancing their problem-solving skills, which might eventually lead to the way the experts mentored each other in Dr. Couros’ experiment.
So while students can learn from each other, I do know from experience that come exam time, the discussion boards can be a bit chaotic to navigate with questions and comments flying every which way. And I can only imagine that this frenzy would be even harder to navigate for students who aren’t fluent in the language that the MOOC is offered in, and difficult for faculty to understand them.
Pretty much sums up my first-year calculus experience…
Personally, I have enough trouble understanding calculus in English, especially if the professor has a thick accent that is unfamiliar to me. I couldn’t imagine learning it in an entirely different language! So just how “open” are these courses, especially to participants who don’t speak the language the course is offered in, anyway?
O: is for Open
While I’ve already discussed that MOOCs are open in the sense that they’re free, and they eliminate the need to physically be present at an institution (meaning that anyone in the world can attend) there’s still something that seems not-so-open about these courses to me. The problems that exist are lack of Internet access and language barriers.
First, let’s tackle the issue of the language barriers. Depending on which institution is offering the MOOC, it’s likely to be offered in a specific language. So while it might be free for the student in Malaysia to access the computer programming course at the University of Toronto, they would have to be fluent in the English language in order to participate.
Now imagine the guy in the black shirt is also your quantum physics professor.
Hypothetically, let’s say a non-English-speaking student decided to learn English to take a course in English. Learning something new is difficult on its own, but learning something new in an entirely different language would be incredibly cumbersome. And even if they were somewhat familiar with English, it would still be easier for them to learn in the language they grew up with, as some words can be lost in translation. Dr. Yang Liu, the Director of Education for Guokr (a platform for a community of MOOC users who work to bridge the language barriers between English and Chinese) agrees:
“Nowadays, a lot of people know English but it’s still comfortable for them to learn new things with their mother language” (Dr. Liu).
Evidently, there is a demand for MOOCs to be offered in languages other than English to make learning easier for all participants. But do they exist? Well, people who speak Chinese might just be in luck. Andrew Ng, co-founder of Coursera, an education platform that offers MOOCs, has hinted at demolishing this barrier by offering courses in Chinese:
“Almost any way you slice it, China is the No. 1 country in terms of the potential for growth and impact on students. In terms of expanding our reach, China’s a huge market and helps us reach their market” (Andrew Ng).
So while MOOCs are “open” courses there is definitely a need for them to be offered in multiple languages to accommodate students from different parts of the world.
Additionally, the second issue I have with the term “open” is that MOOCs require the user to spend a significant amount of time online, and not everyone has a personal computer with Internet access. While they may be able to access one at their local library or somewhere else during times after school or work, there may be regulations limiting how much time they can use the computer per day. So while it’s technically possible right now for a university student without a computer to attend a lecture and then try and find a computer at the library after, it’s a definite challenge, especially because there’s only a few computers.
I know at my school, it can get so busy sometimes that people actually arrive at the library as soon as it opens before classes even start just to secure a place to study. And trying to secure a computer is even harder. I know every time that I try and use one, I can never find one that isn’t in use, so I usually have to wait until I go home to work on anything that requires a computer.
But I suppose if courses were online for free, perhaps more students could save up for a computer because they wouldn’t have to pay such hefty tuition fees. However, I’m concerned that acquiring a degree through entirely online courses may not be beneficial. As a student in a combined arts and science specialization, I have to be physically present to attend labs that compliment my lectures. While some of my courses have had online simulations for their laboratory components, it’s just not quite the same as the hands-on experience in my opinion. Which leads to my next question: Is online really better?
O: is for Online
As previously stated, one of the advantages to an online class is that institutions can save money by not having to build classrooms and laboratories to hold students. In fact, less professors would be needed as many can teach hundreds of students online, meaning there would be less offices needed which would save even more space and money towards building fees, and students wouldn’t have to find apartments to rent. After all, in a growing world of online interactions (and with many students already skipping class) isn’t online the way to go anyway?
On the one hand, students are more free to direct their own learning and work at a pace suited to their needs, as long as they’re careful to meet specific deadlines for projects. This means that the students who need to re-read or re-watch a lecture can do so at their own speed, while accommodating those who wish to work ahead. In this way, MOOCs may lead to more autonomous learning as students will be responsible for deciphering the material with little instructor intervention and will rely more heavily on peer communications.
Oh c’mon… admit you’ve done this at least once. The prof will post her notes online anyway, so why go?
But some people disagree and think that students aren’t getting the full benefit of the lecture unless they physically attend it (though I’m sure the students that skip class in school would disagree). They might be more focused on the material instead of trying to multitask on their computer while listening to the lecture, and they’d be free to put up their hand and ask questions mid-lecture, whereas online, they might have to wait for a response. Plus they’d get the benefit of hearing other’s questions and the lecturer’s response.
Online classes also mean that it would be difficult for groups to interact online instead of in person while they’re collaborating on group work. Can you imagine having a group member from Malaysia, one from Toronto, and one from Ottawa and trying to meet up at the library to work on your project? I suppose they could use Skype or other video-call services, but the connections are usually faulty and I know I’d be a little apprehensive about Skyping with someone I’d never met before.
However, the case could be made that because the discussion boards are so heavily utilized (especially in online courses), they serve as a sufficient replacement for the group interaction and communication, so maybe group projects aren’t necessary in the first place.
Figure 1. 96.7% of all online chemistry majors.
But what about things you do have to be physically present for? What about laboratory work as a chemist, or circuit work as an engineer? I don’t know about you, but when I wanted my license to drive a car I had to pass both a written component and multiple road tests to prove that I was a safe driver. After all, would you hire a chemist who completed their degree online without any laboratory experience?What if they just had to pass a laboratory exam? Wouldn’t they lack the physical experience for the workplace?
Carl Wieman, a recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics certainly seems to think students need hands-on experience to learn science effectively, which he mentions in a paper he published on optimizing science education:
“Currently the implicit roles are that the faculty member simply transfers their expertise, as if it were bits of information, to the receptive students, much like pouring water from a large jug into a set of small receptive cups. This model is inconsistent with what we know about how people learn science” (Carl Wieman).
Here, Wieman argues that students are not passive receptors that simply receive information from faculty. Instead, they need to physically experience science hands-on in order to get a full understanding of it, which he explains in his paper.
While some traditional courses and MOOCs have computer simulations for laboratories, I know I’d still feel like a pretty lousy biochemist if I didn’t at least have some real-life laboratory experience (even if it does sometimes consist of me trying not to spill hydrochloric acid on my lab partner… but that means at least I know some lab safety because I’m aware of techniques to prevent accidents).
I would imagine this would also affect the quality of education post-bachelor degree, and might even slow research as more people would be entering into the next level of education without any practical experience if MOOCs went viral. This ultimately brings me to my most important question as a student who needs a degree behind my name to enter into graduate school: Are MOOCs even formally recognized as degree credits?
C: is for Courses
As you’ve probably guessed, there is a pretty controversial argument as well. While the American Council of Education, which is an advisory council for college presidents, has recommended that 5 MOOCs should be offered for credit, it is ultimately up to the individual presidents and universities to decide.
What’s particularly interesting is that some institutions like the University of Maryland are offering MOOCs for credit, by providing students with the opportunity to specialize in the field of cybersecurity. Wallace Loh, the university’s president argued that:
“These specializations take MOOCs to the next level by adding structure and consistency. We just pioneered a MOOC specialization with another institution, and now we can expand the concept at home, drawing on our many strengths in cybersecurity” (Wallace Loh).
So while some universities might begin to embrace MOOCs, Steve Kolowich, a reporter who specializes in technology thinks otherwise. He argues that by accrediting MOOCs, institutions diminish their ability to invest in promising students who are likely to succeed after they graduate. This will likely reduce the chance that they will donate to the university after they’ve graduated because they may not feel as connected to their school.
I think most alumni would vehemently decline donating even more money.
Now I know what you’re thinking. How many people actually donate more money to the school they had to pay at least $45,000 in tuition fees to? It turns out not much. But those who do donate usually donate significant amounts of money which is beneficial to the university. For example, the University of Guelph recently unveiled a $300,000 bronze Gryphon statue that was paid for almost entirely by alumni donations. So while not many people donate, those that do make a significant contribution to the school. And if people take more MOOCs and miss out on that connection, they’re less likely to donate later. So that means that smaller institutions who rely on such donations are at risk of losing some serious investments.
Furthermore, it turns out that MOOCs have very high drop-out rates, which could give a university a very bad reputation and a resulting loss of income if 90% of the students enrolled in a MOOC failed or dropped out. Why is this? According to one of Coursera’s co-funders, Daphne Koller, it’s because most students who register for a MOOC don’t ever plan on completing it:
“Their intent is to explore, find out something about the content, and move on to something else” (Daphne Koller).
To me, this makes sense. Those who enroll have nothing to lose by dropping out, and may not be enrolling to complete the course for a degree requirement. They could just be trying to learn something quickly for a job requirement, or to fulfill their own interests. They don’t need to complete the course because they don’t need it to count towards a degree requirement. As a university student, I have a different incentive to complete a course because I need it for my degree. And if I fail, I’ll not only have a blemish on my academic record, but I’ll have to pay another $800 dollars to re-take it.
Would people have a higher incentive to stick with the MOOC they enrolled in if failures and drop-outs had marks on their permanent records? Perhaps. But what about those who just wanted to take a MOOC to learn something new, and weren’t interested in the course? Would enrollment rates plummet because they were discouraged? Would employers even consider an online degree through MOOCs to be valuable, especially against another applicant with a traditional degree? Ultimately, it’s hard to say for sure if MOOCs should be accredited or not, especially when each institution has its own private policies.
Conclusion: Every Letter is Controversial
So, on one hand, MOOCs are great. People can take them from anywhere in the world, for free, and sit at home in their pajamas, and receive potential accreditation (from some universities, not all!) for a higher-paying job so they can make significant contributions to the economy.
On the other hand, not everyone (universities, employers, or otherwise) thinks highly of MOOCs, and not all of them are for credit, and even if they are, so what? Would a graduate school associated with the University of Toronto accept a student with an accredited MOOC degree from the University of Maryland? Don’t look at me, I have no idea.
Personally, I’d rather take my classes traditionally, because I think I get more out of them than online classes. But at the same time, I’m not fond of having to pay money to live away from home and for my tuition. Ultimately, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about MOOCs anymore, and I think the conclusion to this debate is that there really isn’t a formal conclusion.
To end off, I’ll leave you with this last image because I think it captures just how controversial MOOCs really are: