San Jose State University
San Jose State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have been a topic of increasingly frantic conversation in higher-education circles over the past year. These courses are open and free to the public and have typically focused on subjects in computer technology and other applied sciences. I wrote a piece for the Scholarly Kitchen a year ago about Udacity, one of the more prominent developers of MOOCs.

At the same time that MOOCs have attracted attention and enthusiasm in the media, others have scoffed at the MOOC juggernaut and at any suggestion that the MOOC concept poses a serious threat to the traditional higher education system. Who cares about free courses if the courses don’t provide formal academic credit? Skeptics also point to the massive dropout rate in these courses, and wonder aloud how any company could possibly turn free online education into an economically sustainable operation.

Answers to those questions are starting to come in. This past September, I followed up my original posting about Udacity with another when it was announced that Colorado State University would begin offering academic credit for successful completion of one of Udacity’s courses.

This week’s issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education brings another such announcement — the California State University system is embarking on a larger-scale pilot project in cooperation with Udacity. According to the report, San Jose State University will jointly develop three introductory math classes which will be freely available to the public and aimed primarily at high-school and community college students. Those who wish to take them for SJSU credit will pay $150 (instead of the $450 to $750 that is typically charged for a course at the university). In order to promote better follow-through and fewer dropouts, Udacity will hire student mentors to provide tutoring and other support. SJSU professors who develop courses for the program will be paid $15,000 each, and will retain copyright in their course materials.

One noteworthy detail is mentioned in passing:

If the project continues beyond the pilot, the university will keep 51 percent of any revenue after costs are covered and Udacity will keep 49 percent, said Mohammad Qayoumi, president of the university, in an interview on Monday.

This suggests one way that a MOOC might become financially sustainable: be offered at no charge to the general public, but at a cost to those who wish to use it as a substitute for a traditional college course. The functionally infinite scalability of the MOOC makes a very low price sustainable, at least in theory.

Theoretically, MOOCs could still turn out to be a flash in the pan — just another Second Life. But as announcements like this one continue to pile up, that scenario becomes less and less likely, and the MOOC’s potential as a disruptor of traditional higher education grows.

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He speaks and writes regularly on issues related to libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education, and has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

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12 Thoughts on "The Shadow of the MOOC Grows Longer"

For introductory courses, yes, MOOCs make good sense, and eventually they may displace a lot of what is taught at the lower level in college. But for departmental majors I don’t see MOOCs ever displacing the kind of instruction that is done in upper-level courses, do you? Much of the value of that experience comes from working in small seminars and engaging directly one-on-one with the professor.

Sandy, I think you’re right that MOOCs pose no immediate threat of serious disruption to upper-division higher education structures. But if MOOCs undermine demand for traditional lower-level instruction, that would constitute major disruption for the great majority of colleges and universities. It seems to me that, if for no other reason, this makes the MOOC phenomenon worthy of our close attention.

I think the real “disruption” is the effect that the MOOCs are having in initiating conversations on hundreds of campuses across the nation about the role (and need) for innovative technologies in teaching and learning – particularly as a replacement for large, impersonal entry level courses that have low success rates. The real opportunity for innovative campuses will be in leveraging these MOOCs for blended and flipped instruction. MOOCs are also forcing the question on campuses about the need for continuous improvement and course re-design, as well as issues surrounding non-traditional learners (now a majority of higher ed students) and cost/affordability. It’s very early days and no doubt these platforms and online courses will continue to evolve and change. In my opinion, MOOCs represent one of a number of innovations born in the cauldrons of the technology and internet revolution that will permanently change education.

Slightly off the topic of disrupting higher education, I am interested in developments in the use of licensed electroinc resources in the MOOC environment. It would seem that without payment for credits, we do not have authorized user students, but merely unaffiliated voluntary learners. This means that under most licenses, it would be hard to allow the learners access to paid licensed content, but certainly legitimate to point them to open access content. So MOOCs and Open Access should be mutually supportive, and Professors/Facilitators interested in one are presumably interested in the other.

As a current MLIS student at San Jose State University, I was excited to see this announcement and hope the pilot project will expand to include courses of more relevance to the LIS field. In opposition to Rick and Sandy above, I see no reason why MOOCs might not eventually displace high-level academic instruction. The MLIS program at SJSU, after all, is entirely taught online and there are many excellent online tools that are used to make this possible. If graduate-level courses can be taught online, why not in the context of a MOOC? (As a side note, I’m enrolled in Coursera’s E-Learning and Digital Cultures course, which starts on Sunday. Those who are interested in such things, would do well to join me. It’s not too late to sign up for this five-week class.)

I see no reason why MOOCs might not eventually displace high-level academic instruction.

Eventually? Sure. But as I said above, I think MOOCs pose the greatest and most pressing challenge to lower-division education.

The MLIS program at SJSU, after all, is entirely taught online and there are many excellent online tools that are used to make this possible. If graduate-level courses can be taught online, why not in the context of a MOOC?

The “if… then” argument you’re making here doesn’t work, because there’s an enormous difference between a traditional online course and a MOOC. Graduate courses have been successfully taught online for years–but not as massively free and open courses. This isn’t to say that a MOOC-based graduate program isn’t possible (or maybe even inevitable)–it’s only to say that the longstanding existence of traditional, tuition-based online graduate courses does not, in itself, count as evidence that a MOOC-based grad program is feasible, any more than the existence and success of toll-access online journals counts as evidence that free journals are sustainable.

One of the challenges I see for MOOCs is the impact they will have on the revenue stream for the University. What I hear from our upper University Administration is that undergraduate courses are cash cows that help underwrite the cost for the smaller, more labor intensive graduate classes. While the cost of offering MOOCs represents a cost savings, will the volume of students taking the classes offset the reduced cost per student so that they still generate the revenue needed to keep graduate classes at affordable levels. One also needs to keep in mind that many of the students in the graduate classes are subsidized by the university through scholarships and graduate assistantships. This is, indeed, a complex issue.

Faculty/student ratio is key to the success of graduate-level instruction, and almost by definition MOOCs have extremely low faculty/student ratios. There simply is no feasible way, in a MOOC environment, to have the main professor teaching the course interact constantly and quickly with the thousands of people enrolled in a MOOC course.

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