EDITORIAL: MOOCs offer promising new model but uses are limited

Illustration by Rob Gebelhoff/robert.gebelhoff@marquette.edu

Illustration by Rob Gebelhoff/robert.gebelhoff@marquette.edu

As the largest available classroom space on Marquette University’s campus, the Varsity Theatre holds 1,156 students. Imagine 60 Varsity Theatres filled with students eager to start class. Now imagine each of these approximate 70,000 students is taking this course because they elected to do so. And none of them are receiving credit for it.

This isn’t a collegiate-themed episode of “Whose Line Is It Anyway.” It’s the reality for thousands of Americans enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses across the country, from small technical colleges to the leading Ivy League universities.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, MOOCs are specifically available to large numbers of students with minimal professor involvement. The publication clarifies that most courses use video lectures and the assignments are graded by machines or classmates to compensate for the tens of thousands enrolled.

This month Marquette is cautiously diving into the MOOC pool by offering a scaled-down, pilot version of a MOOC for the first interested 1,000 university-affiliated patrons. The course is on applied investing and taught by David Krause, a College of Business Administration professor and director of the Applied Investment Management program.

Marquette’s small-scale pilot is nowhere near as “massive” as others. Companies like Coursera or Udacity and non-profits such as edX and Kahn —  in conjunction with universities like CalTech, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, Harvard and MIT —  offer elite education to the masses. 

According to the New York Times, in the “early stages” of MOOCs in 2011, Stanford University enrolled 170,000 students in an artificial intelligence course. The Georgia Institute of Technology will begin offering a MOOC-based master’s degree in computer science in January.

While the widespread use and role of MOOCs in higher education have yet to be determined, decisions like those at GIT to offer entire degrees through MOOCs raise concern.

In addition to GIT, the University of California system, Colorado State University and San Jose State all experimented with or discussed offering credit for their MOOCs, with few results yet.

In theory MOOCs seem to be positive. Instead of buying one book on a topic, watching a documentary or listening to a podcast, MOOCs allow people to continue their education with resources only available to universities.

But if universities continue to focus their time, energy and resources to developing MOOCs it could create larger problems in higher education.

Because there are tens or hundreds of thousands of students enrolled, there is no face-to-face personal interaction with the professor or other students.

According to the Los Angeles Times, San Jose State suspended its collaboration with Udacity after only 22 to 44 percent of enrolled students passed its remedial math MOOC. When compared with the 75 percent average pass rate in traditional remedial math courses, it seems in-person discussion and interaction can largely affect how one understands material and offers different perspectives. Although it’s worth noting the San Jose course included not just college-age students but also high-school students.

GIT plans to charge master’s students $6,600 – a fraction of their $45,000 on-campus tuition – to earn a MOOC degree. If other universities follow suit and continue to offer MOOC degrees, the on-campus equivalents gain value and credibility while MOOCs lose both. 

In their current state, MOOCs could be valuable. Students could use the readily-available online material to supplement their on-campus learning. One professor commented in the Chronicle that using MOOC lectures was like “outsourcing” the lecture periods, allowing more time for projects and personal interaction.

Perhaps companies and universities should take note of Marquette professor and director of the Institute for Learning Howard Fuller’s advice on the future of MOOCs: change the method of teaching.

“Technology does not mean that we don’t need great teachers, it’s just the opposite,” Fuller said in an interview with Online Colleges.

It would be best to stray away from the “MOOC” model for one that incorporates technology while also encouraging professor-student interaction.

MOOCs give another option for those merely interested in learning more about a topic or those looking to continue their education. In concept, MOOCs provide a great option to learn for learning’s sake. However, MOOCs should not become the crux of anyone’s education, nor should they be the focus of collegiate resources, especially at Marquette.

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