College Credit for MOOCs – A Great Possibility? Or the Beginning of the End of College Education as We Know It? Or Both?

I have been watching the growing popularity of MOOCs (“massive open online courses”) with considerable interest. To this point, they are offered for free (mostly) and without college credit. But this may change. According to Tamar Lewin, writing for the New York Times, the American Council on Education will consider offering college credit for some MOOCs. In “College Credit for Online Courses,” Lewin writes:

On Tuesday, the American Council on Education, the leading umbrella group for higher education, and Coursera, a Silicon Valley MOOC provider, announced a pilot project to determine whether some free online courses are similar enough to traditional college courses that they should be eligible for credit.

Further, according to Lewin, “The project is being watched closely by higher-education experts who expect MOOCs to broaden access to higher education and bring down the costs.”

An obvious upside of this credit-for-MOOC strategy would be making education available to those who otherwise couldn’t easily get it. Moreover, given the fact that most of the MOOC lecturers are among the best teachers in their field, the possibilities are indeed intriguing.

But this points to a potential downside. If you can get college credit for a MOOC, and if a MOOC is taught by an oustanding professor, why would you enroll in a similar course at your local community college? It’s not hard to envision a future in which MOOCs are putting many colleges in peril, not to mention eliminating the need for local professors. I wonder when we’ll start hearing about the treat that MOOCs pose to the educational system as we know it. (I should add, however, that some community college professors are outstanding teachers.)

I’m reminded of what has happened to preachers now that it is so easy to hear some of the best ones online, through podcasts, or on the good ol’ fashioned radio. As church members get used to great preaching, they become much less interested in hearing the average preaching in their own pews. Many become critical; many simply stop going to church. Yes, I know this shows a deficient understanding of what church should be. But human nature is as it is.

Given the possibility of MOOCs overwhelming traditional modes of higher education, some might say “Good riddance.” Why should students settle for mediocre profs when they could learn from some of the best? Yet, I can imagine that some especially creative colleges might capitalize on the MOOC opportunity by using their professors more for discussion and tutoring and less for lecturing, etc.

At any rate, it will be interesting to see how of this unfolds. But it seems possible to me that soon we will hear about colleges struggling to stay alive much in the way many forms of print media are drowning in the online pool. Yet, perhaps this very trauma will be the thing that brings about badly needed change in higher education.

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  • TomB

    “As church members get used to great preaching, they become much less
    interested in hearing the average preaching in their own pews. Many
    become critical; many simply stop going to church.”

    Hmmm. You’d think it would happen with preachers, too. So many mediocre congregants in the pews. :-/

    The desire for economy is great among humans. It is especially great among college students, since the price of education has become so high. Also, it appears that government subsidies may become less as spending is brought under better control.

    Maybe MOOCs are the wave of the future. It certainly could decrease the cost of getting an education.

  • bobcameronPhD

    Dr. Roberts, this is exactly what higher ed needs at the moment. Rising costs, lower quality, and the other ills of our current system can only be cured through this type of competitive disruption. I work in the higher ed field, and I say bring on the MOOCs!

  • markdroberts

    Great comment. Thanks!

  • markdroberts

    Indeed. Thanks, Tom.

  • I’m very excited about MOOCs, but MOOCs and University classes are apples and oranges. I’m thinking about Albert Borgmann’s device paradigm for technology. A MOOC reduces the university experience to the pitcher of information being poured out into the minds of students. Like the beginning of Dickens’ Hard Times in which the students are like “little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.”

    MOOCs are wonderful because they help us spread information much more democratically to all who are dedicated to learning. But we shouldn’t expect them to replace the full experience of a university classroom.

    It may turn out, however, that not all students need the full experience of a university classroom…

  • Hampgal

    I have used these courses for home education and give high school credit for them. Many list the textbooks, which are older editions available for under ten dollars. A wonderful opportunity and I am often learning right along with my students!

  • Janey

    I see nothing wrong with MOOCs. Education should be about expanding knowledge and minds of students, instead of providing jobs to people who aren’t able to contribute to society other than to “teach and preach.” (There are some very, very good teachers and professors, but many are painfully mediocre or below average). My freshman year of college I had to suffer a “professor” who was barely more than a soccer mom teach me about about how animals and humans communicate in different ways. Or that mathematics professor who could barely speak english and whose ‘explanations” of mathematical concepts consisted of: “So this is like this and then this is like this, okay? okay. So.” I should be paying $14,000 a year for that?? Traditional higher education today is literally one of the most inflated and subsidized economies in the US – the one that gives the least value for the highest