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Massive Disruption: MOOCs in Higher Education

Massive Disruption: MOOCs in Higher Education
Opinions as to how MOOCs will change teaching and learning in higher education are varied, but that they are completely changing postsecondary education is not in dispute.

How will MOOCs — Massive Open Online Courses — continue to change the marketplace and reshape competition in the higher education industry?

If you’ve been following the stream of articles on digital education, no doubt you’ve run into the frenzy around MOOCs. MOOCS represent a new form of online education deliverable to students worldwide for a low- to no-cost and can provide, in some cases, college credit.  Students can access educational content delivered by some of the most prestigious universities in the world on their time and from multiple devices.

So far, MOOCs have already opened accessibility to higher education for millions of students; according to Coursera over half of these students are over age 26. [1]

As with other disruptions, controversy swells after initial launches, and MOOCs are certainly no exception. Recently, a group of philosophy professors at San Jose State University wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, a government professor at Harvard University, for his offering of a MOOC through the provider edX that had its beginnings at Harvard.

The issue? Concerns the collaboration between schools via MOOCs could represent the beginning of a trend to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”[2]

In early May, several dozen professors in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences signed a letter to their dean asking for formal oversight of the MOOC offerings through edX, a MOOC provider co-founded by the University.

The Harvard professors alluded to “many critical questions,” as yet unanswered, about “the impact online courses will have on the higher-education system as a whole.”[3]  Some outsiders comment that Harvard (and other large tier-one universities) may become the Wal-Mart of education, impacting branding, and moving to a corporate model, which could exclude the original values and mission statement of university education. Critics argue that professors who object to the emergence of MOOCs may be more concerned their scholarly works may come under much more scrutiny when their classes open to the world.

Financially and politically, the MOOC movement recasts itself almost daily as the big players jostle for position to become a top-tier provider of online courses that can be offered either as the main course or more of an appetizer in a flipped classroom setting.

Some higher education forecasters believe this is the future of public education. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is supporting the Massachusetts Bay Community College experiment where MOOC delivery is happening in addition to face-to-face classroom instruction, has devoted millions to seeing if MOOCs produced by elite universities could help boost student success at financially-strapped state colleges.

The MOOC style of delivery is no doubt highly popular among students and lifelong learners. More than 900,000 people are now registered users of edX, and President Anant Agarwal said it plans to generate revenue — through selling validated certificates to those who complete courses and charging licensing fees to colleges that teach courses based on its videos — are on track.

Coursera, another highly popular MOOC provider, adapted its original vision to a new platform, offering credit-bearing courses for students enrolled in multiple campuses within a public university system beginning in May 2013.

The company’s partners in this are the State University of New York System, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee System, the University of Colorado System, the University of Houston System, the University of Kentucky, the University of Nebraska System, the University of New Mexico System, the University System of Georgia and West Virginia University.

Critics claim the real impact of MOOCs may not be in educational pedagogy, but in the altering of the financial and political systems tied to higher education.

Faculty are concerned about job security, academic freedom and the general dismantling of a very entrenched traditional version of higher education. Other newly-arising and hotly contested issues include: whether a professor who creates content delivered on a MOOC platform is responsible for the full impact of disruption created at another university or community college; whether students are actually learning anything; and how credit administered for these courses would compare with credit delivered for face-to-face classroom instruction.

Chandrakant Panse of Massachusetts Bay Community College said, “The MIT certificate has a lot more value in the marketplace than three course credits at MassBay — absolutely.”

In the context of a student’s job search, says the professor, an edX certificate “is going to matter tremendously more than saying. ‘I have three credits at MassBay for doing a programming course.’”

Because of the paucity of secure and psychometrically valid learning outcome assessments, it is difficult to determine the value of MOOCs. Some see it as a new form of entertainment, with some students around the world competing to obtain the highest numbers of letters of completion.  These so-called hardcore students have, in some cases, taken more than 30 courses and describe themselves as “Coursera addicts.” They argue this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from some of the most prestigious universities in the world … for free. And they worry this free admission to high-quality education may not last for long.

New research published by the Journal of Research and Practice in Assessment is among the first peer-reviewed studies based on MOOC data. The study discovered online learners performed better when they worked with the course material offline, either with a peer or with someone trained in the area of study. The course reviewed was “Circuits and Electronics” from MIT.

In this article, we must also visit the issue of cheating online, as it is easy to do so in a MOOC.  “Understanding Cheating in Online Courses,” an eight-week course, explores the vocabulary, psychology and mechanics of what Bernard Bull, assistant vice-president of academics at Concordia University Wisconsin, calls “successful cheating” in online learning.

Not all academics are critical of MOOCs. In fact, some of them welcome the movement as a way to augment their already-established courses. Khosrow Ghadiri, a lecturer at San Jose State University, said the edX course works perfectly as an additional classroom resource.

“It’s a talking textbook that you can pick up any chapter of it, augment it the way you want it, add lecture to it, and use it to teach your students effectively,” he told The Chronicle of Higher Education. [4]

Last fall, Ghadiri began using recorded lectures by edX’s Agarwal in his introductory course in electrical engineering. Students passed at a much higher rate than usual — 91 percent compared with 59 percent and 55 percent in two other, more traditional sections of the same course.

“We need a talented faculty to engage with the students,” said Ghadiri. “The only thing that I see in this pilot experiment is that the faculty get more time to spend with the students one-on-one.”

Clearly, the emergence of a trend such as the MOOC is indicative of unmet educational needs worldwide. Societal changes are forcing time-tested traditions to yield to the demand for more relevant models. The disruption presently created by the MOOC movement can be a time for fresh debate and an emergence of completely new models that serve both instructor and student more effectively in the 21st century.  As with many things in our societies, embracing change promotes growth, both personally and professionally.

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[1] Allison Morris, “The Minds Behind The MOOCs,” Online Courses, June 4, 2013. Accessed at

[2] “San Jose State Department of Philosophy – Open Letter to Professor Michael Sandel From the Philosophy Departemnt at San Jose State U,” RapGenius, April 29, 2013. Accessed at

[3] “Letter from 58 Professors to Smith Addressing edX,” The Harvard Crimson, May 23, 2013. Accessed at

[4] Steve Kolowich, “Outsourced Lectures Raise Concerns About Academic Freedom,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 28, 2013. Accessed at

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