May 18, 2013

Skeptics are calling online courses the “Wal-Martification of higher education.” You get what you pay for, they say. But just like traditional brick-and-mortar courses, there are low-quality and high-quality MOOCs. If we judge the potential of online courses based on disengaging, non-interactive videotaped lectures, we’ll handicap our ability to envision the extent to which they can benefit students around the world.

MOOCs are the promise of  new, low-cost pathways to employment – especially important when tuition is rising at a rate almost five times that of inflation, student debt surpasses credit card debt, having a college degree doesn’t guarantee anyone a big paycheck or even a job, and paying off student loans may be a lifetime accomplishment.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, describes the current job market as a jungle gym.1 Nowadays, it is rare that college graduates ascend a single vertical ladder. Rather, young professionals will most likely have a variety of jobs and responsibilities that result in both horizontal and vertical career progression (just ask me!). Since education should exist to prepare students for the workforce, the education space is evolving in a similar fashion. The more tools available (including MOOCs), the more creatively job-seekers can make their way to where they want to go.

However, MOOCs are generating a lot of controversy, especially now that more and more are being offered for-credit. Out of curiosity, on April 24 I attended a senate hearing on HB 520 (read the Fact Sheet here). The bill proposes that students who are unable to get into select intro courses may take them online for-credit, provided these courses adhere to certain criteria. At the hearing, dozens of university professors lined up to testify in opposition to the bill. In an open letter to a Harvard professor with a MOOC version of his social justice class, San Jose State University professors gave reasons for not wanting to use his MOOC for their own students.

Many of these concerns are valid when the “MOOCs” threatening to replace traditional courses are recorded lectures. I would call these MOOLs – massive open online lectures – since the word “course” should signify learning by doing. Let’s not judge the potential of online education based on MOOLs. Instead, let’s focus our attention on how far we can reach; on how much students and educators can accomplish. Let’s look far into the future and adjust to fit our potential.

1Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

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