By Alexandra Sukin ‘15, perspectives editor
As online courses like Coursera and edX pop up on the internet, higher education is undergoing a transformation. And at this point it’s unclear how dramatic and extensive the changes will be.
The nonprofit from Harvard and MIT, edX, had 370,000 students enrolled in its fall courses, which is modest compared to Coursera’s 2.6 million members and 222 courses. And companies like Udacity and Stanford’s Class2Go have prompted Google to create a MOOC-building online tool. The idea behind MOOC’s is that anyone with an internet connection can access higher learning—and in an astonishingly short time. Most class sessions are collections of 8-12 minute videos, released one time a week. Some sites offer grading systems which allow users to check their understanding, and often to receive a certificate at the end of the course. Because faculty recording the courses can’t possibly answer the thousands of students watching, classmates have begun to organize study sessions and groups in their area or participate in online forums. “The evolving form [of the courses] knits together education, entertainment (think gaming) and social networking” wrote Laura Pappano on nytimes.com.
There are some flaws in the system. Cheating, unsurprisingly, may be rampant, and David Patterson, a professor at UC Berkeley, told the New York Times that he “found groups of 20 people in a course submitting identical homework.” Udacity and edX now offer proctored exams, but it is nearly impossible to require all the users to take the exams proctored. However, in some cases, worries over cheating are unnecessary because some people may be disinterested in the credentials, accessing the courses simply for the intellectual challenge. Another concern is that many students are not prepared for the university-level courses they enroll in with a click of the mouse- which can lead to scores of applicants failing to complete the course. The grading of assignments has caused some consternation. Assignments that can’t be evaluated by an automatic grader- often in literary courses- force providers to develop new grading systems. However, not all of them are effective or fair. Coursera, for example, has users submit an assignment and grade five, while five other users grade theirs. But that raises many questions and complaints about such subjectivity: what if my graders aren’t fair? What if they’re bad graders? What if they’re not qualified to determine my grade? Finally, some students can feel lost in the sea of tens of thousands of other users all vying for on-line attention from the instructor. The difficulty with Massive Open Online Courses is just that—they are massive. Laura Pappano considers that a significant question. “How do you make the massive feel intimate?”
While the future of MOOCs and their impact on education is pondered, they continue to grow more specialized and community-based. University of Cincinnati is releasing its first MOOC this fall, offering “Innovation and Design Thinking” for business and engineering students—for free. Cliff Peale wrote on Cincinnati.com that “MOOCs are moving colleges toward a system where students would get their content anywhere, online or on a campus, and package it into a degree.” This could leave colleges in a sort of limbo between physical and online classes. The only question is whether MOOCs will become effective enough to completely supplant a college class.
This is an experiment that is still evolving. Dan Greenstein of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation told the Cincinnati Enquirer that the MOOCs “hold great promise, but are not without challenges.” The question boils down to whether people can give up their notion of a traditional college in lieu of a completely online experience that will feel less exclusive and personal but with the potential for efficiency in both time and cost.
As the MOOC model continues to grow and develop, current Country Day students are taking advantages of the opportunities offered by MOOCs and other online courses. Rebecca Miller ’13 participated in three online courses designed for high school students through Brigham Young University. Miller did receive high school credit for the courses, but confirmed that there are pre-requisites for courses as is typical in a standard high school course. She also summarized the advantages and disadvantages of online classes: “they did allow me to take courses that either were not offered at my school, or were not offered at a convenient time. However, it was hard because I was not able to directly interact with the teachers. Any feedback they gave me was either incredibly generic, or was only given at the end of the course.”
My brother Charlie Sukin, who is a freshman this year at Country Day, has completed two MOOCs through Coursera.org: one in computer science for which he received a certificate of completion and another in Internet history and security. Similar to Miller’s experience, both courses offered content that was different from and supplementary to the classes he takes at school. Echoing Miller’s comment, one of the drawbacks he identified is the inability to ask questions and clarify your understanding as the lecture progresses. Charlie continues to sample online courses in technology to see if they meet his interests and time constraints. Some classes require a substantial amount of preparation time beyond the lectures and are difficult to balance with a rigorous high school course load and extracurricular activities. Another consideration for Country Day students to consider in selecting a MOOC is the level of the coursework. In my experience, after having sampled several courses, many require a significant academic foundation in the subject area. MOOCs are not online courses designed for high school students. Rather, they are college courses and are taught by preeminent experts in their respective fields. Therefore, the introductory level courses (or other carefully selected courses) are probably some of the most suitable offerings for high school students wishing to challenge themselves with a MOOC. Pappano’s article notes that in both an edX and Coursera course “over 70% of the students had degrees (more than a third had graduate degrees).”
Pappano, L. (2012, November 2). The Year of the MOOC. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from nytimes.com: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/education/edlife/massive-open-online-courses-are-multiplying-at-a-rapid-pace.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Peale, C. (2013, January 25). UC joining new wave of online construction. Retrieved February 15, 2013, from cincinnati.com: http://news.cincinnati.com/article/20130125/NEWS0102/301250047/UC-joining-new-wave-online-instruction?nclick_check=1