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Problems with Massive Online Open Courses
Will the Traditional College Campus Soon Disappear?
A few weeks ago, I was listening to a podcast interview of Keven Carey, the author of The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. As the title indicates, Carey is convinced that the college experience as we currently know it will become decreasingly common over time. Instead of people traveling to campuses to take courses in classrooms, they will be receiving their educations online, with thousands of students taking a single online course at the same time. Instead of a small number of students spending tens of thousands of dollars to hear lectures by the top professors in their fields, an unlimited number of average Americans will have access to these top educators at limited cost. Already, elite institutions like Stanford and MIT are offering these massive online open courses (or MOOCs) for free, with tens of thousands of people signing up. The future, therefore, is already here, and it is just a matter of time before these types of classes become the norm.
It is easy to see the appeal of this new college model. A college education has become increasingly vital for success as time has passed, so even though the costs of college have been skyrocketing for decades, people feel compelled to pay. Collectively, Americans have amassed trillions of dollars of student loan debt, delaying or preventing peoples’ ability to achieve the American dream. But with only one professor being paid to teach these MOOCs, and the cost of providing physical facilities for classes eliminated, a college education can once again be affordable.
As a parent of future college students and an American concerned about the future of my country, I am open to any ideas that people might have for making college more affordable. I don’t want to fork out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to send my kids to the best schools. I don’t want to live in a country where social mobility keeps decreasing and inequalities of wealth become even more entrenched. But at the same time, I am a community college history instructor. So if people start taking their history classes online, I could soon be out of a job.
Also, as a community college instructor, I am particularly aware of some of the problems that institutions offering MOOCs will have to solve before these types of classes can truly replace college as we know it:
Accountability – As a community college instructor, I teach classes that are relatively cheap to take and that have very limited admission requirements. It is therefore inevitable that students will come into my courses that are woefully unprepared when it comes to academic skills. So if they begin to struggle, or if they decide that they are either unwilling or unable to invest the effort required to pass this college level class, there is little to stop them from dropping out. It didn’t cost them much money to sign up, after all, and they can always just start the class over at a later date.
Everything that I just said is multiplied for MOOCs. Literally anyone can sign up, the classes cost nothing, and there is no consequence for failure. So until open online courses offered by Stanford start charging fees for taking classes, and until there is some sort of a penalty placed on a permanent record when people fail, I will not be impressed by the huge numbers of people “taking” these classes. Tell me how many people finished the class, not how many signed up. As every community college teacher knows, there is a big difference between a student who enrolls in a class and a student who takes it.
Assessment – If grades are based on objective multiple choice exams, then it doesn’t really matter how many people are taking a course. A computer program can grade tens of thousands of multiple choice exams as easily as it can grade fifty. Multiple choice exams, however, are only effective for either testing a student’s ability to memorize facts or to perform scientific/mathematical calculations. But if a teacher wants to assess the ability of students to perform higher level critical thinking, a type of assessment that is particularly critical in the humanities or social sciences, then multiple choice exams are not particularly effective.
Now there may come a time when computer software can assess the quality of a research paper, essay, short story, or poem. But since we are not there yet, institutions offering MOOCs may have to hire an army of educators to grade written assessments. Costs, however, would inevitably go up, taking away one of the main advantages of MOOCs in the first place. The question, therefore, as it is with education in general, is whether the benefits of reducing costs outweigh the resulting limitations on methods of assessment.
Cheating – In a perfect world, student assessment would primarily consist of take-home assignments that require more time than is available during a single class. Conventional tests, after all, are not reflective of what people will be asked to do in their future careers. Few people will ever sit down in a desk and be required to regurgitate a bunch of memorized information in an hour or two.
The problem, however, is that it is impossible to know if the student enrolled in the class actually did the take-home assignment. It is likely that most students are honest, but there will always be a few cheaters. So in this less than perfect world, I base student grades almost exclusively on work that they complete in class. But with a purely on-line class, this is not possible, and while there may be technologies and techniques to improve the odds that the enrolled student is doing the work, students throughout history have consistently shown a great deal of ingenuity when it comes to cheating.
Cost – By their nature, on-line classes are cheaper to offer than conventional classes. But they are not free. When major universities offer free MOOCs, it is important to keep in mind that these free courses are being subsidized partially by students paying tens of thousands of dollars to take conventional classes on site. So until these MOOCs can start funding themselves, I will remain skeptical of their ability to change college education as we know it.
Student / teacher interaction – Good college courses, as with good classes at any level, do not consist of a teacher standing in front of a room and performing a one-person show for the students. There needs to be a certain amount of back and forth happening between teacher and students, with students being forced to respond to prompts and having the ability to get immediate responses to questions. And sometimes, the best teaching moments happen one-on-one with discussions after class or during office hours.
The internet, of course, can provide plenty of opportunities for interaction. Students can talk to teachers and to each other at all hours of the day via chat rooms or email. It is difficult, however, for teachers to have any meaningful one-on-one interaction with students if they have a class of 20,000. As with assessment, this problem could be solved by hiring (at a high cost) dozens of tutors to respond to student inquiries. Automated tutors may also be able to fill at least some of this gap. But for the moment, automation cannot have the same effect as personal interaction with a knowledgeable, passionate, and human teacher. And some would argue that it never will.
The “college experience” – At all levels, school has never been purely about education. Grammar schools are as much about providing day care and socializing children as they are about reading, writing, and math. When people reflect on their high school years, they often remember more about the extracurricular activities than about what happened in classrooms. And when people go off to college, they look forward to an even more rewarding “rite of passage”: living in dorms, joining fraternities, going to football games, attending events on campus, and squeezing in a party or two (or more). Needless to say, taking courses online cannot replicate these experiences.
Ever since books became readily available, schools as educational entities have arguably been unnecessary, and the older that we get, the less we should need school. If K-12 schools do their jobs and teach people basic academic skills, then everyone who graduates from high school should be an independent learner, and especially in this dawning Information Age, college as we have known it should not be needed. For independent, self-motivated learners, the online education model is ideal. If these people want the knowledge without the frills, then I hope that there will be plenty of low cost online programs, whether MOOCs or otherwise, available to them.
Large numbers of students, however, are not the self-motivated, independent learners ideally suited for an online education. Some lack basic academic skills and need some one-on-one help. Some need a set schedule with a physical class to attend that is run by a cheerleader/disciplinarian/role model that will help keep them on track. Still others want to experience the same rite of passage as their parents and grandparents.
I have no doubt that online college education has a significant role to play in the present and future. But it is not necessarily well suited for everyone, and so long as some of the issues listed above remain, college as we have known it may stick around for a while.