MOOCs, an Approach to the High Cost of Post-Secondary Education

Last week I wrote of how technology could be used to reduce and in some cases eliminate the cost of a university education. This is being done today, and gaining a lot of attention and a certain amount of traction. The focus is on a technology called MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses).

They are being offered free by such leading universities as MIT, Harvard, Stanford and Princeton. They are also being offered by high tech start-ups, operating in partnership with universities, such as Coursera and Udacity, both started by Stanford faculty. Another more experimental venture, called the Minerva Project, is directed to developing a prestigious University on a par with Harvard, albeit all online.

Coursera currently has the largest number of courses and enrolees from around the world. Their courses are presently free, although Coursera does not yet have a business model (reminiscent of the tech startups of the 90’s, many of which failed). Unlike many of the 90’s startups, however, they are acutely aware that they need to develop a viable business model and are exploring numerous avenues, such as partnerships with established universities. Also, they are intended to operate as non-for-profits.

They do not offer degrees, but rather certificates, Although they are working on having their courses accepted for credit by degree granting institutions, which some already do on a limited basis. Also, they are working with major companies, and some have been enlisted, to have their certificates recognized for employment purposes.

None of this is entirely new. Online institutions have been around for decades, and some have achieved a reasonable amount of success. Although generally they have not achieved the same degree of respect as have established traditional universities.

So what’s different about MOOCs?

For one thing, they make use of current technologies more effectively than has been the case in the past. The internet itself has evolved tremendously in recent years, becoming an interactive platform where information is plentiful and cheap. A world of big data and social media. They make use of short videos, as opposed to long lectures, with frequent short quizzes to keep their students engaged. They also utilize technology to mark exams and are going beyond the traditional kind of multi-choice approach that has previously characterized computer-marked exams. Use of text analysis tools makes this possible.

Perhaps most importantly, they are experimenting with big data analytical techniques to customize the educational experience of each and every student, by tracking all their activity, right down to which videos they watched all the way through, how they did on the quizzes, which areas they excelling in and where they need help and then offering extra materials for those weaker areas. All of this is done with computers analysis tools.

MOOCs are in their developmental stage, and we can expect to see some massive improvements over the next few years, assuming the current levels of venture capital remain available for them. They are providing lots of fodder for research into educational techniques, which will aid this improvement.

Back to the high cost of education. MOOCs offer the most scope for change in under-graduate education. And that’s where the massive cost hurts individuals the most. Undergrad programs tend to have the highest number of lecture-based informational survey courses, and MOOCs are ideally suited to replace those. And improve on them. They may not all be free, but they will be available at half or less the cost of traditional university courses.

And that can have an enormous impact on the educational system. It is already starting to show that potential.