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Are MOOCs the Answer to Massive Tuition Hikes?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Are massive online open courses (MOOCs) the wave of the future? It is no secret that the cost of a college education has grown at an unsustainable pace--up 1,100% over the last 35 years--and the burden of student debt is at a crisis level. Is online education the answer to making a college more affordable and accessible?

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Heather Jarvis, a student loan expert who provides education and training to student loan borrowers, thinks “innovative ideas like MOOCs are an important part of the solution.” According to Jarvis, “it is appropriate for us to think of all kinds of ways that we can minimize the costs in education.” Also, given that lifetime earnings advantage of college graduates over high school grads has been pegged at $279,893 (a little more than the cost of an exclusive four-year school), the actual value-add of a college degree from an elite institution becomes questionable from the perspective of earning potential.

For those in a traditioanl educational setting, Jarvis would advise students who are considering the MOOC courses to think about what they want to do with the course and check with their educational institution on how the course will be treated. Although colleges and universities are currently structured around credit hours, Jarvis states that “government is backing off of the idea of credit hours” and “moving to a competency standard.” The idea is that rather than getting credit based on the number of hours, students could get credit based on mastering competencies and demonstrating knowledge. If the competency standard concept moves forward, MOOCs could play an important role in making college more affordable.

MOOCs popped up in the higher education landscape in 2008, but the MOOC movement really took off in 2012 as new providers came on the scene and top universities signed on to provide MOOCs. The popular providers of MOOCs include Coursera, Udacity, edX and NovoEd. The list of universities providing MOOCs is impressive, with names such as Stanford, Princeton, Brown, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Pennsylvania all offering courses. MOOCs are evolving with Coursera recently announcing that it will soon add an “app platform” to allow universities to add interactive instructional tools. Coursera also began experimenting with charging modest fees to students for certificates of completion. The fees for the certificates, Coursera’s “signature track,” range from $30 to $100, and students who cannot afford the fee can register for financial assistance. In addition, the American Council on Education recently approved five Coursersa courses for degree credit. The universities still have the option of whether or not to offer the approved courses for credit, but two to three credit courses on Coursera could be between $90-$100.

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There are many types of courses offered through MOOCs, and your possibilities for learning are endless. For Example, you could take a course from Berkeley on descriptive statistics, a course on finance from Stanford University, a course on healthcare informatics from the University of Minnesota or a course on how to write code in Python from the University of Toronto. If you are looking to take a course for fun, you might consider options like studying the history or rock from the University of Rochester, learning about the science of gastronomy from the University of Hong Kong, or exploring introduction to guitar from the Berklee College of Music.

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The reach of MOOCs is expansive with tens of thousands of students around the world enrolled in a single course, making higher education more accessible than ever. Accessibility and affordability are the cornerstones to the MOOC movement, but will MOOCs transform higher education in such a way that lowers the cost of higher education, while maintaining the quality of higher education?

The critics of MOOCs point to the high dropout rate for MOOC courses, the lack of personal attention, and the fact that online learning may not be suited to all types of students. An additional challenge cited is how to make the courses interactive when you may have upwards of 70,000 students signed up for a particular course. Professors of the courses often have rules about not emailing them or friending them on Facebook, leaving no room for communicating directly with the professor. Also, how do you verify that the students taking the courses are who they say they are, and how do you go about giving grades to tens of thousands of students?

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With the criticism from some sectors of the higher education community, and unabashed excitement from others, is it too much to hope that MOOCs can solve the higher education cost crisis? Abram Anders, assistant professor of business and communications, at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD), thinks MOOCs will “play a role in lowering costs, but they are not a silver bullet” and that “MOOCs may not prove as revolutionary as some hope and others fear.” In his view, MOOCs will not lead to the demise of the college campus, and students still are going to need people to help them learn. Anders sees MOOCs as “an incredible model for opening access to knowledge but with real limitations as a substitute for a traditional residential campus and for full courses of study”.

At UMD, many instructors are dabbling in “home-brew MOOCs” or “Moocification,” where they are taking some of the concepts of MOOCs and applying them in different ways to traditional courses. According to Anders, faculty who are open to MOOCs find the concept “exciting” and “energizing” and that it is “stimulating innovative approaches to teaching and learning in the academy.”

I wanted to see what all of the MOOC hype was about myself, so I started my first Coursera course this week, an Introduction to Operations Management, offered by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. Admittedly, I am pretty excited about the possibilities of taking all kinds of different courses for free, because I love learning. The Coursera courses are self-contained, meaning that you don’t need to purchase an expensive textbook, but there are textbooks recommended if you want the additional resource. My course is structured around short lectures, approximately 7 to 11 minutes in length, with questions throughout the lecture to measure comprehension of the subject. Although learning online lacks the give and take that you get between a professor and the students in a traditional setting, I appreciate the ability to be able to watch lectures more than once to really master the material. And the accessibility of being able to watch the lectures at any time of the day from any location with Wi-Fi can’t be beat. I am also intrigued by the ability to connect with students from around the world.

That said, there is also much to be gained from learning in a real classroom, and having the college experience. I had a great college experience, and it is hard to imagine getting a full-time college education through MOOCS. Would we lose afternoons on the Union Terrace at the University of Wisconsin, late nights at the library, snowball fights on Bascom Hill or many of the other special moments that make college a transformative experience?

The college campus and the college experience likely isn’t going away any time soon, and it may be soon to tell if MOOCs or some adaptation of MOOCs will be the solution for bringing down the cost of college and reigning in the student debt crisis. But, the MOOC movement will undoubtedly make a mark on higher education, and how it evolves.

Also see: Student Debt Diary: Wait, What was the ROI on my Education?

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