Free Online Classes: Unlocking the Ivory Tower

Colleges flock to offer courses for all, but questions abound

Even if MOOCs can clear these hurdles, two more huge ones loom before free online classes can put any significant dent in the way that academia is constructed. First off, no MOOCs thus far offer college credit: Coursera in particular outright bans credit for its courses, instead offering "certificates" that, in theory, students can wave at prospective employers in lieu of an actual diploma to show their competence in a subject. One reason for this is no doubt to ward off fears by university partners that MOOCs will provide a way for students to evade paying tuition; another has to do with the troubling prospect of pass-fail online credits being graded either by a computer or by 15-year-old kids in São Paulo.

An even bigger question, meanwhile, is how to pay for all the staff time involved in developing and implementing Web-optimized courses, not to mention the cash that the MOOC companies require to run their end of the bargain. (Coursera and Udacity are both for-profit enterprises; the smaller edX is nonprofit.) Ng is loath to consider charging even a nominal fee for classes—"poor kids in India, poor kids in China, not only do they not have five dollars, they don't even have a credit card," he says—but ask how he plans to make all this pay for itself, and things get more nebulous: Students could be charged a nominal fee if they want a certificate, he suggests. (Udacity recently began experimenting with an $89 proctored exam for students who desire a meatier credential.) Last month, Coursera also announced Coursera Career Services, in which job recruiters will pay a fee to get the names of top computer-science-course certificate-holders; no word on any headhunter interest in fantasy writers.

And while universities have been quick to throw their hats into the MOOC ring, their long-term goals seem to be less about breaking down ivy walls than learning how to supplement what their paid students are already learning. Columbia's main goal in joining Coursera, says Sreenivasan, is to "get a sense of what we can learn from this new big space that can also apply to our students. We want to try various experiments, and this is just one set of those." His counterpart at Michigan, Martha Pollack, says that if MOOCs are going to have a future, they're going to need to spin off some benefits for the universities providing the content: "Either it's going to have to make a tremendous difference for our students on campus, or we're going to have to have some kind of financial model that allows us to break even."

Krishna Chavda
Ng says he launched Coursera to bring college material to the masses.
Courtesy Coursera
Ng says he launched Coursera to bring college material to the masses.

From what MOOC students say, colleges have little to worry about in terms of competition: Every student interviewed by the Voice agreed that while online courses are great, they're no substitute for real college coursework. And even Ng agrees that virtual study groups can't fully replace the college atmosphere: "If you're admitted to the University of Pennsylvania, and you're debating staying at home and taking online courses, I would say go to the university for sure. A university experience is much more than just content."

Gibbs, meanwhile, thinks that trying to turn MOOCs into an extension of the traditional classroom is exactly the wrong way to harness the power of online learning, especially because there are already plenty of online textbooks and YouTube educational videos for Web learners to choose from. "I think the real power of MOOCs is not as content delivery; I think the power of MOOCs is in getting people to create and collaborate together," says Gibbs, citing DS106, a digital storytelling class that University of Mary Washington professors Jim Groom and Alan Levine have offered since the spring of 2010, where students team up to create everything from radio plays to movie posters. "Get people to make a wiki," she suggests. "Get them to annotate The Iliad in Slovenian and put it online.

"What these MOOCs have shown us is that people want to use the Internet for education—they don't just want to share cat pictures," continues Gibbs. "The missing ingredient right now in terms of online education is not content. The missing ingredient is not superstar professors from elite universities. The missing ingredient is educational communities that really work."

For now, though, the pioneers of this brave new world remain cautiously hopeful. "I think it could really revolutionize education," says Haugh, the Columbia MOOC prof. "But what do I know?"

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