Still little consensus on role of massive, online courses in higher education

BY Kyla Calvert and WGBH News  August 27, 2014 at 5:20 PM EDT

Open, online courses are reshaping classrooms, giving motivated students the chance to learn online for free and creative tough questions for college administrators. Photo Credit: John Loo

Open, online courses are reshaping classrooms, giving motivated students the chance to learn online for free and creative tough questions for college administrators. Photo Credit: John Loo


Massive, open, online courses could be reshaping the typical college classroom. Tonight, PBS NewsHour Weekend Anchor Hari Sreenivasan looks at how in the third story in his Rethinking College series.

The classes, known as MOOCs, were once hailed as the next big disruption to traditional higher education, opening the door to a college education to anyone, anywhere in the world. But the low percentage of students who complete such classes on their own, and the fact that most people who sign up for MOOCs already have a college degree, have educators rethinking how the new format for college coursework can best be put to use.
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Instead of thinking of MOOCs as a self-directed route to a college education, Georgia Tech has taken both massive and open out of the equation and is using the format of short video lectures and online coursework to offer a $6,000 master’s degree in computer science.

Other universities are still wrestling with the decision concerning whether to recognize students’ work in the free courses offered by organizations like edX, Coursera and Udacity.

Earlier this month On Campus, the higher education desk at Boston’s WGBH, looked into what college and universities leaders are thinking about how MOOCs that students independently might fit into their formal college career.

They also spoke with Johnathan Haber, who is writing a book about his experience completing a self-designed MOOC philosophy bachelor’s degree. Highlights of their conversation appear below.

ON CAMPUS: First of all, why would you want to take so many open online courses?

HABER: I originally discovered MOOCS at the end of 2012. At that time there was a lot of talk that MOOCS were going to revolutionize education, going to rock higher education to its foundations. As I read more I realized a lot of the people commenting on MOOCS all had something in common. They had not actually taken many of them, are even one of them. And I realized to get a real sense of what they could and couldn’t do, I couldn’t just take one course, I needed to take enough coursers to be able to get a real sense of what they’re like from different technology platforms, different providers, different universities, different professors and that was genesis of my degree of freedom project.

ON CAMPUS: What was it like to complete all these courses and what did your typical day look like?

HABER: I decided I was going to take these coursers as a seriously as residential college courses, so this is what I did for the year: I took the courses as well as writing about the experience. I structured my day very much like a college day in that I scheduled classes for different times of the day. I would take my Einstein’s relativity course at 11 on Monday, Wednesday Friday. I would take my Greek Hero Class on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I found actually without that structure, without treating it like a real college class, it is really difficult to take a MOOC from beginning to end because they’re not passive learning, there’s actual active learning, note taking, close paying attention, not multi-tasking.

ON CAMPUS: What was the workload? How many courses did you end up taking?

HABER: The total ended up being 34 courses that matched the distribution and degree requirements for a B.A. in philosophy. Not all were MOOCS- in some cases I found other free learning tools that would help me meet my degree requirements. Of the MOOC category there was an interesting kind of intimacy created by the course itself. I can think of a course I took from Harvard on the Ancient Greek Hero. The way the videos were structured were as conversations between the professors and his colleagues and his students. In an interesting way, the thing that should be the most impersonal, video lectures, created a sense of intimacy that I did not find in other learning methods.

ON CAMPUS: What’s your opinion on course credit?

HABER: You need to keep in mind that not all MOOCs are created equal. Some of the courses I took went on for 14-17 weeks and required several papers or some pretty rigorous tests. Others went on for just 6-8 weeks, and you could pass by just answering some relatively easy multiple choice questions. And I think that’s by design. Professors have different goals for their class; Some are very much trying to replicate an existing residential class and put as much syllabus material as they can on the web, and others feel liberated from the semester system and can teach just that chunk of material that they really love and wrap it into a 6-8 week course. So it’s very hard to calibrate and simply say a MOOC is a college course, because it’s not.


PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.