Online Courses Force Changes To Higher Education

Online college courses are attracting hundreds of thousands of students, and that's forcing colleges and policymakers to rethink higher education. The online courses may pose a serious challenge to the way institutions deliver a college education.

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There is a lot of speculation now about what issues - big and small - the Obama administration should tackle in its second term. Education is one thing on many of those lists, and in Washington yesterday, the talk was about one of the hottest trends in the field - something called MOOCS. MOOCS is short for Massive Open Online Courses; college courses, to be exact.

With millions of dollars in funding and the backing of some of the nation's elite institutions, these online courses are attracting hundreds of thousands of students, and also forcing colleges and policymakers to rethink higher education.

Here's NPR's Claudio Sanchez.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Should President Obama appoint an undersecretary of MOOCS at the U.S. Education Department?

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SANCHEZ: That was the actual title of a panel discussion at the National Press Club yesterday - part tongue-in-cheek, part serious. Serious experts say because massive open online courses have changed the whole notion of college access and affordability. Ben Wildavsky, one of the panelists, is senior researcher with the Kauffman Foundation.

BEN WILDAVSKY: Americans are going to start thinking about higher education not as, you know, a traditional college, necessarily, or even a traditional night school, but as something that's sort of moves beyond these traditional barriers of time and place.

SANCHEZ: Here's how MOOCS work. A professor put his class - a lecture or discussion - on the Internet. Students log on. They take the class for free. They do the work, take the tests. If they pass, some MOOCS offer a credential. Where students live, their background, their preparation, none of that matters.

Wait a minute. Isn't what they once said about correspondence courses back in the 1920s? Nicholas Carr, who writes about technology says, 90 years ago there was a mania about correspondence classes by mail.

NICHOLAS CARR: And at one point, four times as many Americans were taking correspondence classes as were enrolled in all the country's universities. And a lot of the excitement and a lot of the rhetoric about those classes very much echoes what we're hearing today with MOOCS. People thought it was going to, not only democratize education, but improve the experience.

SANCHEZ: It proved to be a fad. MOOCS are no fad, says Carr. But in his most recent book, "The Shallows - What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains," Carr argues that the success of MOOCS will hinge on the business model.

CARR: Right now we don't really know what the business model of MOOCS is. MOOCS today are being subsidized either by venture capitalists or by the schools themselves.

SANCHEZ: Most MOOC courses are free, but once you start charging a fee, Carr says, students should expect college credits towards a degree, something that the more prestigious institutions involved with MOOCS are unwilling to do. And that's a problem because it's hard to keep people motivated if they can't get academic credit towards a degree. Anant Agarwal is president of edX, which is run by MIT and Harvard. He says people forget MOOCS are in their infancy.

ANANT AGARWAL: In some sense, what we've done is we've turned the college process on its head. Harvard and MIT might accept less than 10 percent of its students, but with a MOOC course, anybody can come in, anybody can sign up and take a course. It's the ultimate democratizer.

SANCHEZ: If there is to be an undersecretary of MOOCS, says Agarwal, that person's job should be to monitor both the quality and cost-efficiency of MOOCS without getting in the way of innovation and experimentation.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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