Promising times for online learning and higher ed
The Kansas City Star
Got an itch to learn single variable calculus? Or how about game theory, or introduction to artificial intelligence?
Courses formerly confined to the nooks and crannies of academia are now available to anyone with a computer. For free. Their rapid entry into worldwide learning has huge implications for higher education.
MOOCs — massive open online courses — have the potential to export the teachings of university professors to emerging populations hungry for knowledge. In the United States, they could be a remedy for soaring college costs and crippling debt.
But they also could reinforce inequality in higher education. A well-schooled middle-class student is likely to use a fast-moving online course to greater advantage than a student from a bottom-tier high school who may require tutoring and other support to succeed in college-level courses.
No one knows where MOOCs are going — or if they’ll even stick around. They have attracted venture capital but have yet to come up with a logical profit stream.
Area colleges and universities are wise to be watching closely, however, and strategizing about how to take advantage of their potential.
Colleges and universities have for years offered courses online and charged credit hours, often at a reduced rate from similar courses taught on campus.
More recently professors from elite universities like Stanford and MIT have been putting their content on the Web for free, offering people from Prairie Village to Bangladesh the chance to absorb knowledge in the form of short videos and quizzes on their laptops or smart phones. The small percentage of students who complete a course receive a certificate, but not credit.
The courses attracted so much interest that professors and university officials began developing platforms to market and offer courses. The big three so far are Udacity, Coursera and edX.
A Kansas City Star survey of area colleges and universities showed that most are watching developments in the MOOC realm and a few are contemplating a role. Fort Hays State University, an innovative college in western Kansas, is considering allowing students to pay for credit hours after successfully completing an online course taught by a MOOC professor.
MOOCs and distance learning in general are a vital element of higher education moving forward. The idea of college being restricting to a campus is fading fast — a fact that university leaders should take into account as they contemplate ever more ambitious building programs.
But Internet learning brings its own set of challenges. Online colleges and classes have high dropout rates. Questions are being raised about the quality of some of them and whether students are getting their money’s worth. Low-income students, who find the lower costs appealing, may have the most difficulty with the independent study.
At the same time, there are worries that too much regulation and control of online learning will squelch a promising movement.
MOOCs aren’t likely to displace traditional higher education. But they have the feel of something substantial. Colleges and universities should look for ways to use them as a force for greater equality and opportunity.