Disruptive innovation: Open online courses are changing education forever

Published: Sunday, Dec. 16 2012 10:10 p.m. MST

Audrey Watters is an education technology writer who lives in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and writes a blog called Hack Education. She's tried a plethora of MOOCs, and is currently enrolled in one that Wiley teaches through his own website, Ed Startup 101 (www.edstartup.net). She calls herself a "serial MOOC dropout."

Watters really wanted to learn computer programming, and actually finished Coursera's Introduction to Computer Science class, though not for college credit.

But possibilities of getting college credit for MOOCs are increasing. Antioch University in Los Angleles was the first U.S. institution to contract with Coursera, one of the largest providers of open online courses, to offer MOOCs for credit as part of a bachelor's degree program. The pilot program began this fall. And, on Nov. 12, the American Council on Education announced that it will begin evaluating Coursera courses for potential college credit.

What does online availability of free courses mean for colleges and universities that depend on offering the same knowledge for a price — especially if students can get college credit for MOOCs? And how will colleges continue to offer expensive graduate programs if MOOCs take the place of the huge undergraduate classes, whose tuition fees help support graduate classes?

Ivy League schools needn't worry about their profit model, said Anya Kamenetz, who writes about education technology for Fast Company magazine. Top-tier schools will continue to draw paying students who will forever after be able to flash a prestigious degree, she said.

Community colleges are safe as well, as they will be needed to provide remediation, career training, and a gentle transition toward university life. It's middle-tier schools that have reason to worry, Kamenetz said, because the advent of MOOCs is likely to hollow the middle out of the higher education market.

"I don't foresee a massacre, but I do foresee a shakeout in the industry," she said.

Higher ed in flux

When such blue-chip schools as Harvard, MIT and Stanford jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, it signaled that something big was happening.

"It changed the definition of what world-class universities need to do to retain their missions and be relevant," said Kamenetz, who authored the book "DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education." "If you can create a high-class, interactive experience broken down into short chunks that can be learned on students' own time, there is little justification for professors to go on lecturing — monologue-ing — on campus.

MOOCs aren't for everyone, though. They are great for motivated students around the world who lack access to universities, and learners outside the United States form the majority of MOOC students now, she said. MOOCs also appeal to already-educated people making lateral career shifts. But most MOOCs are difficult to navigate unless the learner already has college experience, and they don't provide the social advantages of a traditional college experience.

"That traditional experience is still going to be available for students who can afford it," Kamenetz said. "But people need to wrap their minds around the fact that 75 percent of today's college students live off campus, and their average age is in the mid-20s. MOOCs didn't do that, and won't change that."

Though it's "flashy" to talk about MOOCs as a threat to higher education's structure, it's more useful to examine them for their value to student learning, said Andrea Nixon, curricular research director at Minnesota's Carleton College.

Carleton is a small liberal arts college that takes pride in offering a personalized learning experience, but even there, MOOCs could help students, Nixon said, by filling in student learning gaps. She compares open online classes to other learning resources, like libraries. College campuses have a ravenous appetite for knowledge in many forms, she said.

MOOC evolution

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