Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) can help make education cheaper and more accessible, but some say they have potential to undermine the current profit model.
We’re moving to a more competency-based world where there will be less interest in how you acquired the competency — in an online course, at a four-year-college or in a company-administered class — and more demand to prove that you mastered the competency,. —Thomas L. Friedman,

Massive Open Online Courses — MOOCs — are the big new thing in higher education, and they are upending that world in unexpected ways. Some of the free courses, which are often taught by professors at top universities, enroll tens of thousands students all over the world. The controversial courses are vilified by some as potential disruptors of higher education's profit model, and hailed by others as the long-sought way to make higher education more accessible and less expensive. Whichever turns out to be true, it's certain that MOOCs are already changing the way teachers teach and students learn.

One positive outcome of the MOOC stampede is that techniques shown to improve instruction for online classes are migrating into classes taught on campuses. A Massachusetts conference presented by MIT and Harvard University in early March focused on lessons learned from MOOCs and other forms of online education that are being applied in regular classes on college campuses.

The participants learned about challenges and opportunities for blending online features into on-campus classes, and ways to overcome barriers to using new learning modes. They also learned about a MOOC feature that teachers and students see as a big improvement in test-taking: computerized tests that are graded automatically, and provide immediate feedback to students.

New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who attended the seminar, wrote of his takeaways from the event. The first was that online education is pushing institutions of higher learning to move from credit systems based on seat time toward new models based on what students know, and what they can do with what they know.

"We’re moving to a more competency-based world where there will be less interest in how you acquired the competency — in an online course, at a four-year-college or in a company-administered class — and more demand to prove that you mastered the competency," Friedman wrote.

Friedman also wrote that professors must change the "sage-on-the-stage" lecture formats in their classes, and empower students to master basic material online at their own pace. The classroom then becomes a place for lab experiments and discussions with the professor. Noting that kindergarten teachers are certified to teach, but college professors aren't, Friedman wrote that "the world of MOOCs is creating a competition that will force every professor to improve his or her pedagogy or face an online competitor."

Moving education into the virtual universe is also creating new problems waiting to be solved. One emerging wrinkle is that MOOC professors are trying to figure out what to do about online threats of suicide or violence on the message boards of their globe-spanning virtual classrooms, said a story in Inside Higher Ed magazine. The problem of students in distant countries posting online threats to themselves or others is causing teachers of the popular courses to "rethink the boundaries of the student-teacher relationship," the story said.

A representative of MOOC provider Coursera told Inside Higher Ed the company is trying to create a process for dealing with troubled users. Drawing on the experience of social media sites, Coursera might consider adding a page where users can report suicidal posts by other users. The company is also developing technology that uses keywords to flag worrisome posts.

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The dilemma of dealing with unstable students in a virtual world points out an obvious fact about online education — the lack of human connections in the off-line world. Even for that problem, creative solutions are arising, however. Education's Digital Future, a Stanford University education blog, includes a post about "MOOC Meet-ups." In cities around the world, students enrolled in one MOOC or another are forming communities, and getting together in person to discuss what they are learning.

The meet-ups make students feel more accountable for their learning, the blog said.

"That’s a needed virtue in online courses that suffer from one main, ongoing criticism: Isolation. It’s easy to procrastinate, to grow bored or to go through the motions of an online class. Gaining a peer group serves as a way to motivate one to stay on top of coursework and to feel excited to discuss what you are learning in a course — in person."