The Online Buzz
I am confident that we have all been bombarded by the news that the elites are now in the business of offering free massively open online courses (MOOCs). MIT has been one of the leaders in this area with MIT OpenCourseWare. While I continue to applaud the open course ware efforts, my question is to what end do students take these courses beyond personal enrichment and satisfaction. MIT has somewhat responded to this question by announcing MITx where students can apply for a certificate showing competency after having completed the course.
In recent weeks, we have begun to see what has been dubbed by some as the Battle of Titans: several announcements of partnerships of elite institutions to offer MOOCs. Harvard and MIT have partnered through edX while the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, the University of Pennsylvania, and Stanford and Princeton Universities are working with Coursera. While it appears that these groups as well as other institutions are wrestling with the finding a budget model for MOOCs, it is clear that they are reaching a large, worldwide audience.
I think this is wonderful. Having been in the field of continuing education for over 30 years, my number one priority has been to give as many people as we can access to the promise of education.
And as I cheer for these efforts, I am also finding the reactions to these efforts interesting. I sense an underlying implication that now that the elites are offering online courses, this has somehow given legitimacy to online learning that was apparently previously lacking. This implication actually emerged in the case of UVA’s President Sullivan, where Rector Helen Dragas described in an email: “Higher education is on the brink of a transformation now that online delivery has been legitimized by some of the elite institutions” (emphasis mine). So now it’s “ok” for institutions to offer access to students through online course work. Well, if this is what it takes for the public to recognize that online learning is one of the solutions to lowering the cost of higher education, then I am all for it. An example of this is an op ed piece by Thomas Friedman, and his assessment is “let the revolution begin.”
Again I’m all for these efforts and for the “legitimizing effect” it may have on online learning. What bothers me a bit is that the revolution, as Friedman calls it, has been going on for many years. What I wish would be recognized in the media is that our colleagues have been tending the vines of distance education and online learning for a number of years. While tending the vines, online learning has come under great scrutiny. Anything that is offered “off campus” cannot be of the same quality as an on campus courses, or so the perception had been. In response to this scrutiny, through those years a great deal of work and research has been done to demonstrate that students in online learning are in fact learning as much if not more than in a face to face course.
So as we move to the next phase in the revolution, what I want to do is to pause and recognize and thank all my colleagues who were on the front lines of this revolution many years ago and who have persevered and tended the vines of distance education and online learning. As I see it, our continuing challenge is to find new ways of better assessing student learning as we utilize tools to expand access to the promise of education.