Published on 2013/06/18

Free Online Courses Increase Accessibility To Higher Education At The Expense Of Quality

To Free Online Courses Increase Accessibility To Higher Education At The Expense Of Quality
Free online courses are providing skilled workers with an accessible pathway to advance their skills and knowledge but are not in a position to change traditional higher education as yet.

The purpose of higher education is for students to become good citizens, contribute to the community and, of course, develop the ability to learn over their lifetime. In the past, learning was for learning’s sake — the pursuit of knowledge. Industry is now demanding “skilled workers,” but it is important not to view institutes of higher education as manufacturing facilities where students have knowledge embedded into their brains before being shipped out into the marketplace. Students not only require technical skills to get the job, they require soft skills to keep the job, add value and help the organization flourish. College and universities teach students to be successful in their career, even if they end up changing jobs 10 times during their lifetime. This is done by fostering dynamic learning environments and incorporating leading-edge research and technologies into the educational experience. Free online courses may be addressing the demand for skilled workers but are not yet giving the students what they need for lifelong learning success.

Louis Menand sums up the value of higher education in his article for The New Yorker: “In a society that encourages its members to pursue the career paths that promise the greatest personal or financial rewards, people will, given a choice, learn only what they need to know for success. They will have no incentive to acquire the knowledge and skills important for life as an informed citizen, or as a reflective and culturally literate human being. College exposes future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing.”

Today, the higher education marketplace is being transformed. Global competition, the economy and technological changes have forced institutions to rethink their role and what is taught. Collaboration, cultural awareness and digital literacy are now the keys to success. The challenge is how to effectively teach this and prepare students for an ever-changing reality.

Different business models have always been a part of higher education. Continuing education or “night school” is a good example. Another is correspondence courses, which were previously delivered via snail mail but are now delivered online. Khan Academy, Coursera and Udemy are the latest options for students. Are these free online postsecondary courses, commonly known as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), really transforming the marketplace?

They have addressed two issues with the traditional business model: accessibility and affordability.

However, I think we have to consider that employers (and parents) require a recognized standard, something they can trust. For this reason, MOOCs have adjusted their business model. Early MOOC offerings such as those of Khan Academy did not really provide what employers required.  Coursera, with their American Council on Education recommended college credit courses, seems to understand they have to bridge the traditional/standard model of x weeks followed by periodic evaluation with the newer model of self-paced, open learning so that the average person is comfortable. Otherwise it’s too risky. While there is a lot of press around tech companies hiring high-school students who have learned coding on their own, for most companies, the cost of making a hiring mistake outweighs the benefits of speed-to-market and agility. They want postsecondary students to have some accredited or recognized form of rigorous training.

Another shortcoming of MOOCs is to do with their capacity to succeed on the teaching and learning side of higher education. There is less of an opportunity to diverge from the lesson plan. Sometimes when I’m teaching, there is a particular concept or topic students wish to explore deeper, and I have the flexibility to do so. We are also able to ask contextual questions that force everyone to question ideas. It’s very dynamic and even differs from session to session within the same course. These are the most engaging and valuable aspects of in-class teaching. MOOCs don’t currently have the ability to be as responsive to the students — especially when there are thousands of students registered in the course from different time zones. Given this, MOOCs are great when it comes to augmenting previously learned knowledge, or if students already grasp the basic concepts and are looking for different perspectives and approaches to those ideas. But when it comes to teaching a concept from scratch, MOOCs in their current form are not the best resource.

Delivering mass education requires some form of standardization. Higher education has that, to a large degree, but it is hard to form relationships with other classmates, faculty and staff when you don’t have the opportunity for face-to-face interaction. It is not as easy in a MOOC, even compared to traditional closed online courses higher education is currently exploring.

At the same time, we can’t ignore the accessibility and affordability issue. This is where MOOCs have transformed the marketplace. Some institutions are accepting the free MOOCs for college credit, thereby reducing the overall cost of obtaining a college degree. This will put competitive pressure on other schools.

Future outlook

The fact that entrepreneurs are looking at higher education is a good thing. There obviously is a market need for innovation, and the more “edupreneurs” looking at how best to educate people, the better. I’m sure they will address the need for personal, face-to-face interaction as technology develops.

Higher education institutions’ desire to provide the best student outcomes will compel them to continue to explore different business models and to test and adapt what is being done externally. They have done this with gamification, and are now doing it with hybrid learning models.  Faculty and institutions that focus on students will take premium positions in the marketplace.

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Menand, Louis. “Live and Learn.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 06 June 2011. Web. 05 June 2013.

Diamond, Laura. “University System of Georgia Taking a Closer Look at MOOCs.” Cox Media Group, 30 May 2013. Web. 05 June 2013.

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Readers Comments

Ursula V.F. 2013/06/18 at 7:58 am

There are some issues online education, in its current form, has yet to work out, notably the lack of high-quality interaction in an online environment. At the same time, online education has the potential to help students develop some of the non-technical skills Shah discusses. For example, going online has allowed some institutions to develop a global reach/focus they would not have if they had remained offline. This is an important paradigm for students to be exposed to, and that could benefit them in our increasingly connected world.

Stephanie Ritchie 2013/06/18 at 1:41 pm

I disagree with Shah’s view that “soft” skills can’t be learned or practiced in an online environment. I can think of at least a few examples where the opposite is true. For example, students are required to exercise their written communication skills online perhaps more rigorously than in a face-to-face setting, where the need to articulate their views is lessened by their ability to rely on body language. Online, that doesn’t exist, and so they are forced to practice their written communication.

Ewan Philipps 2013/06/18 at 4:40 pm

Interesting that Shah thinks MOOCs are less able to respond to changing student needs than a traditional face-to-face course. I would argue that MOOCS have the potential to collect big data that simply isn’t available in traditional courses. There are technologies that can then be used to analyze that data and develop responses to identified gaps/needs. Granted, we’re not necessarily at that point yet in online education. However, the potential is there, so it’s too early to rule out MOOCs entirely.

Rabab Khan 2013/06/20 at 6:31 am

I don’t think the article is completely ruling out MOOCs. It’s correctly pointing out the gaps and issues that still exist and hamper them from becoming as useful as they could be.

I started taking a Statistics related course on Coursera (not mentioning the name deliberately) but it soon came to a point where it just flew over my head and I dropped out. There was so much that the teachers were not covering.

Right now, MOOCs aren’t bad for extending your knowledge but when you want to learn from scratch, you just have too many questions for it to be useful

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