Published on 2013/06/24

Choosing a University over a MOOC: There’s More to Higher Education than Learning

Choosing a University over a MOOC: There’s More to Higher Education than Learning
Since most individuals pursue higher learning for tangible outcomes outside of knowledge enhancement, traditional higher education institutions are still preferred over MOOCs by prospective learners.

With so many possible pathways available for today’s students, the competitive nature of the business of higher education has reached an all-time high. Today, students can choose to participate in traditional classrooms, blended formats, completely online academic programs and even free MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), all of which possess significant advantages and disadvantages.

So, if the point of higher education is the pursuit of enlightenment, what factors impact students’ selections between free online classes, such as MOOCs, and traditional classroom learning? I believe the best answer lies in the individual student’s motives for learning.

In 2009, when my seemingly steady manufacturing facility closed its doors, I suddenly found myself unemployed with few transferable skills. I knew, in order for me to achieve my desired goals, I would have to pursue higher learning in some capacity. I was a father, husband and I was geographically fixed, so I began looking at which options existed for me. My decision came down to three realistic choices: online academic programs, MOOCs or attending the regional campus of a state university located in my community.

I quickly removed the online academic program from my list because these programs seemed to be created for those currently employed who are only seeking a degree for advancement opportunities and not necessarily for the value of learning. This type of degree is very appealing to those who have practical experience and are looking for the fastest or cheapest way to get that “piece of paper.” To someone like me, they held less value because I knew I needed more structured learning than this type of degree could offer. They are convenient in the sense I would be able to stay in my own home and take classes, but some employers have a negative perception of this type of program.

Next, I gave MOOCs some thought. At the time, this was a new concept that carried with it the same advantages of convenience as online programs, with one major additional advantage: they were completely free. I could sit at home and learn from top-notch instructors from well-respected universities. To me, if the point of higher education was the pursuit of knowledge, then this seemed like a win-win. I could soak in all of the content offered without having to make a financial investment. However, there was one major drawback, which was that free MOOCs carry with them no academic credit.

So, no big deal, because I’m only concerned with learning. The idealistic pursuit of knowledge, right?


My real motivation was to acquire knowledge to advance my pursuit of a chosen career, not to simply become a man of greater thought. Thus, I discovered the answer I sought. I would attend a regional campus.

As a non-traditional student, my return to school was all business. From day one, I knew the point of my return was to obtain a degree that would assist me in the competitive job market. I was confident in my decision because I spent significant time looking over job boards and ‘help wanted’ ads examining what employers were seeking prior to making a decision. What I found was that most employers wanted candidates to have both academic degrees and related experience. To me, a degree in Applied Management made obvious sense. I could simultaneously achieve the degree required by most employers while gaining the valuable experience they desired.

A MOOC, while fundamentally sound, could not offer that “piece of paper” for free. Thus, if I had to pay to receive a credential gained from a MOOC, I would essentially be taking an online course, which I had already decided against.

To me, MOOCs are a great value for those who have the desire to learn for the sake of learning alone. If I ever have the desire to discover knowledge in a new content area that does not necessarily relate to my career path, a MOOC will be my choice. However, when trying to utilize my knowledge for something more tangible in the workforce, I recommend the traditional classroom for the more palpable “piece of paper” at the end.

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Readers Comments

Madison Riley 2013/06/24 at 2:16 pm

It’s expected, but a bit sad, that learning for the sake of learning is not seen as “useful” in our society.

Just the act of engaging in ongoing learning — pursuing a topic you’re passionate about and learning more about it — is a valuable trait to have.

Employers should be on the lookout for individuals who are engaged in ongoing learning, whether it’s for-credit or not.

    Todd McCullough 2013/06/26 at 2:26 pm

    Madison, I agree with your opinion of the unfortunate situation that we face. I’m a firm believer in the value of life-long learning and I enjoy utilizing MOOCs for developing my understanding of content that is intriguing to me—music, art, philosophy—the types of things that I believe make me a better thinker. However, as a recent graduate I am constantly filling out online job applications in which I have to list my degree’s and if my response doesn’t match what the job posting requires I will never get the opportunity to sit with the employer to demonstrate my abilities. This is where I believe the value of traditional education systems still has an advantage. Look at the organization where you are employed, do they post degree requirements as part of their job postings? Do you believe they would accept an equivalent amount of uncertified MOOC work to meet that requirement?

Oliver Wayne 2013/06/24 at 4:12 pm

It’s unfortunate that we essentially penalize those who are interested in learning for learning’s sake. Rather than seeing these credential-free individuals who take MOOCs as curious, bright and eager (and, thus, potentially good employees), we reward those who are boring, risk averse and stick to the status quo. Not to mention rich.

Todd McCullough 2013/06/26 at 2:57 pm

I think the idea of penalizing those who are interested in learning for learning’s sake is an interesting take. I don’t think of it in terms of punishment/reward as you stated because the student should understand their desired outcomes prior to beginning any program. If you want to get into medical school and you decide to go the route of MOOCs you shouldn’t be surprised or feel penalized if a program rejects you because you fail to meet the admission requirements of holding a specific degree.
In addition, I don’t think it would be fair to categorize those who choose to enter those traditional programs as being “boring, risk averse” and especially not “rich”. Sure, some may be. Just as some students who enter MOOCs could also be categorized this way. I’ll defend this by sharing a bit about me. My wife and I both had good jobs in the optical industry, when our jobs were outsourced I chose to enroll in school in hopes specifically to earn a degree to assist me in obtaining a specific type of job. At this time we had a mortgage, car payment, and a one year old son at home all of which made the decision of returning to school terrifying. I took out student loans to make ends meet, and have struggled financially for the three and a half years that it took me to complete both of my degrees. While enrolled I was also frequently enrolled in MOOCs for the additional development of content areas that I was interested in.
I did all of this because I was imaginative, had a strong desire for learning in multiple content areas, and was willing to take the largest risk of my life in order to achieve what most employers sought.
I do agree with you that employers should seek individuals who are curious, bright, and eager.

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