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Several companies offer online courses taught by professors at top schools.
This transition to digital learning is as significant as when we first began to learn from books. —Karen Cator

When the first movable-type printing press began churning out books in 1439, knowledge that belonged to an elite few flowed to masses of hungry learners.

This year, something similar happened. Select courses taught at places like Stanford on subjects like physics were offered for free online, meaning that a level of education once available only to Ivy League-level college students is now an option in places like Pakistan, Ghana and Tibet.

These courses, called Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) make education cheaper and more accessible, but some say they have potential to undermine the current profit model.

"This transition to digital learning is as significant as when we first began to learn from books," said Karen Cator, director of the U.S. Office of Educational Technology. "Now we have a whole new opportunity to learn, with expert explanations, simulations and models of complex ideas. It's interesting and exciting, and it also needs continued research."

What's a MOOC?

Online classes have been around for decades, providing a convenient, if rather dull, learning environment for correspondence courses and basic education. MOOCs have much more going for them: the ability to turn a Harvard professor's best course into a global learning community via the Internet, usually at no cost to the learner.

To get an idea of what a typical MOOC is like, the nine-week Introduction of Astronomy course available through the Coursera website at coursera.org is a good place to start. The class is taught by Duke University physics professor Ronen Plesser, whose video course introduction paints a glowing picture of a splendorous universe. Tests and assignments are graded automatically, and the course workload takes six to eight hours per week. No college credit is given, but students can pay to get a certificate proving they completed the course.

In the past year, interest in MOOCs like this one have exploded. Upstart companies that provide the classes have seen dramatic growth. Coursera, one of them, has 2 million subscribers and partners with schools like Stanford, Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities to provide content.

MOOC genesis

MOOCs have been around for at least five years. One of the first people to create one was Utah State University professor David Wiley, who found a way to invite people all over the world to interact within a 2007 class he was teaching on the USU campus, via the Internet.

In Canada, educational technologists David Cormier and Bryan Alexander hit upon a similar idea at around the same time, and christened their online learning community a "MOOC" — Massive Open Online Course — in 2008. A buzzword was born, albeit one that sounds like a coughing cow when pronounced.

Wiley's first open online class adapted the community-driven idea behind open source software and applied it to educational content, creating a learning environment where everything happened online.

"You put so much work into building a course and getting it ready to offer, and you have this feeling that there are a lot of people in the world whose lives would be blessed if they had a chance to learn some of the things you are teaching," Wiley said. "It turns out to be very little extra effort to put it all online, and do it in such a way that anyone can participate."

Endless replication of a good teacher's work creates tantalizing possibilities, said Cator: "Every teacher doesn't have to do the whole thing over themselves. We will have the best-of-the-best playlist of lectures and interactions, and we'll begin to understand which are most helpful for different kinds of students."

MOOC credit?

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

MOOCs are already creating alternate pathways to the workplace that bypass college altogether. Udacity, which started at Stanford in 2011 and now has over 400,000 users, recently announced that Microsoft, Google and other companies are sponsoring classes through its site to develop skills those companies need workers to have. Students can pay a nominal price for certificates showing they passed the courses — one of the ways MOOC companies support themselves.

Kamenetz thinks colleges and universities will respond by finding new ways to integrate open online courses into their offerings. A teacher at a community college could use a MOOC by a top-tier professor in the way a professor uses a textbook — as a foundation for a course, with other learning activities wrapped around it.

University of California is exploring the idea of creating MOOCs on its central campus and "franchising" them to its satellite campuses, she said. "This creates efficiencies, and provides a strong avenue for limiting costs in higher ed," she added.

MOOCs are being incorporated in flipped classrooms, in which learners watch lectures and complete online assignments at home, and do interactive projects with their teachers during class time. And, they might provide a solution for students who currently must wait to get into overcrowded programs such as nursing.

"If we can certify learning after taking courses online, then we don't have that problem of people being derailed in their quest for a degree and a job," Kamenetz said.

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