Are MOOCs Overhyped?

Not just the latest tech novelty, massive, open, online courses—otherwise known as MOOCs—apparently are here to stay. But even as the super-sized courses and their money-making providers pave new inroads into public education, including most recently the California State University system, it’s still unclear whether thousands of students plus a handful of instructors adds up to a lot of learning.

“We’re always interested in innovations, especially ones that might make higher education more accessible and affordable,” said Mark F. Smith, NEA’s senior policy analyst in higher education. “But MOOCs offer just a taste of higher education—not higher education itself.”

To start, a little history: the first MOOC was offered five years ago by a Canadian public university. It relied mostly on synchronized online meetings, blog posts, and web-based discussions in Moodle, a software platform, to help more than 2,000 students and public citizens connect with other around course content.

Then, in 2011, when a Stanford University professor enrolled more than 160,000 students in a massive course on artificial intelligence, the enormous online courses began to really grab headlines. Not long after, that same Stanford University professor left his teaching position to open Udacity, one of a handful of for-profit companies that sells MOOCs to colleges and universities for a licensing fee. Since then, more than a million students have enrolled in these kinds of courses.

Typically, they’re free to students—an unusual boon in these times of rocketing college costs and student loan debt—and they do span the globe, reaching into isolated rural homes and remote areas where access to higher education may be difficult. But they’re also almost always non-credit courses, which means students can’t actually use them to earn a college degree—a necessity in today’s job market. And completion rates among MOOC students are much lower than those enrolled in traditional face-to-face courses with a highly qualified professor. For example, that Stanford class with 160,000 students? Less than 25,000 actually completed the course—just about 15 percent.

“There’s a sort of mania for massive online courses right now but there’s no good evidence that they work for all students,” noted Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association (CFA), which represents NEA Higher Ed members at California State University campuses, to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Just this week, a California state senator introduced a bill calling on the California State University system to offer MOOCS to all students turned away from over-enrolled, introductory courses. (Because of draconian cuts in state funding for California public colleges and universities, there is a lack of faculty and facilities to meet the growing need for higher education in that state.) But under the bill, a nine-member faculty panel would choose the courses that should be offered online for credit. Earlier this week, CFA said they would work with the bill’s sponsor to make sure that it both “improves student success, while protecting the reputation of California’s public higher education system as best in the world.”

Meanwhile, at one of the CSU campuses, San Jose State University, faculty and administrators are moving forward with a relatively modest pilot program. Under the conditions of its deal with Udacity, another major player in the MOOC universe, the university will offer three online introductory-level courses, which will cost students $150 each. Each course’s enrollment will be capped at 100 students with half the slots going to San Jose State students and the other half going to members of the public, with priority registration for military veterans and wait-listed San Jose State students. Importantly, San Jose State faculty members will be teaching the classes, an important step toward ensuring quality control, and students can earn credit towards a degree if they pass the course.

And they’re not the only public university testing the water. In January, Georgia State University said its faculty would be reviewing MOOCs for possible, credit-earning courses. At the University of Texas-Arlington, administrators have said they plan to use MOOCs in their nursing program, “RN to BSN.” Other institutions, such as Florida International University, West Florida University, and Utah State University, have made similar announcements around their online programs.

But, while the pool grows larger, some college educators think the water is not particularly deep. “We are entering a cynical age of ‘good-enough education’ for the hundreds of thousands of children in California who cannot afford to attend a quality liberal arts college,” wrote CSU Long Branch professor Teri Yamada on a recent blog post. “They will be offered the ‘good enough’ cheap option, which actually may not be good enough for the higher-skill jobs anticipated in the state.

Photo: AP Images