Study Nicks MOOCs

By Staff

Unlike so many online education alternatives before they came along, massively open online courses (MOOCs) captured the educational zeitgeist and have become immensely popular. Many education experts have heralded them as the educational response to both globalization and overwhelming college costs. But a study conducted by San Jose State University — thought to be the first of its kind — has called into question the effectiveness of the MOOC model in delivering a quality educational experience.

An initial report on the pilot project found that the massive online courses increased retention and passing rates. But the full report, released with little fanfare, is much less optimistic. The project was considered a pathbreaking attempt to use massively open online courses in public universities, driven by the enthusiasm of California Gov. Jerry Brown. The results haven’t lived up to the initial enthusiasm: Students found the courses confusing, and disadvantaged students fared particularly poorly.

This may be a bit of a blow to the MOOC education model, although the popularity of courses offered by providers like Coursera does not seem to be waning. Coursera, the largest provider of such courses, recently announced that more than 3 million students had registered for classes on the organization’s website in the first 11 months after its launch.  Coursera’s announced that “Couserians hail from over 210 countries and have signed up for a staggering 10 million courses.” With this kind of groundswell for education, something has to happen to add value to the students’ time and efforts.

The courses offered through Coursera and other MOOC providers are not just fly by night how-to classes by Ralph-the-Instructor. Rather, they are typically designed and taught by respected professors from well thought of schools. Some of Coursera’s offerings have even been recommended for college credit. In February, for example, the American Council on Education (ACE), which advises 1,800 schools on matters of accreditation, recommended that five MOOCs be approved for college credit at its member institutions.  The courses include:  Pre-Calculus and Algebra, from University of California, Irvine; Calculus: Single Variable from the University of Pennsylvania; and two offerings from Duke University, Introduction to Genetics and Evolution and Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach.

The problem is that ACE member schools are not bound by the Council’s recommendations. And, at this point, none of the sites through which MOOCs are offered confer degrees. So, students who take the courses are in a bit of a bind if they are hoping to receive any sort of credit for their efforts. On the other hand, those who enroll in the courses simply out of interest or for the educational value, are getting a tremendous bargain — the courses are free. If you are hoping to get credit down somewhere down the line, you will typically pay about $50 for the course.

Your $50 enrolls you in the course with some heightened scrutiny to ensure that you complete the work in a timely member and that you did it yourself. It is the courses that offer this additional level of proctoring that tend to receive the recommendations for accreditation. With the burgeoning popularity of MOOCs, putting down your $50 in the hope of future college credit is not a bad bet — especially if it’s credit from a school like Duke.

While few schools are accepting MOOC coursework for college credit, many traditional brick-and-mortar colleges are jumping into the MOOC game. The University of Minnesota, for instance, one of the largest public university systems in the country, announced recent plans to partner with Coursera to offer MOOCs. The University’s announcement mentioned that five of its faculty members had already signed on to develop such courses. By teaming with Coursera, the school will join a cadre of more than 60 institutions, including Duke, Stanford, Rutgers, and the Universities of California, Michigan and North Carolina, in offering MOOCs through Coursera.

So, if such prestigious schools are offering the MOOCs, why are so few (if any) giving credit for them? The primary stated reason is the apparent ease with which the system can be used to cheat. With Coursera’s free courses, this may be the case, but its Signature Track system — the piece with the course fee — requires web cam identification, a web-proctored final exam and integrates keyboard typing-pattern recognition in order to protect against cheating. I am not sure if its considered untrusted technology, but it seems at least as effective as the online courses I take through my regular college.

Ultimately, I think the reluctance to offer college credit for MOOCs comes down to economics. If you pay $49 for a class through Coursera and take it to Duke or Penn or even the University of Nebraska, where they charge 8-20 times the price of a Coursera course for a single credit, you can understand why a school may be reluctant to offer such a deal on a three or four credit course.

The most likely future scenario for MOOCs seems to be getting Signature Track-style courses accredited and then paying a fee to a college or university to transfer them in for credit. So, the idea of getting college credit for only $50 is probably not going to happen. But, getting real college credit very inexpensively and delivered conveniently for a couple hundred bucks is a real possibility.