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Topic: SECOND POSTING: Into the Future With MOOC's
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
SECOND POSTING: Into the Future With MOOC's
Posted: Sep 25, 2012 9:16 AM
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From The Chronicle of Higher Education, Monday, September 3, 2012.
Into the Future With MOOC's

By Kevin Carey

In the spring of my freshman year in college, I took "Principles of
Microeconomics" in Lecture Hall 1, a 400-seat auditorium. The
professor was an economist and thus possessed a certain perspective
on human nature. On the first day of class, he explained that our
grades would be based on two midterms and a final. If we skipped the
first midterm, the second would count double. If we skipped them
both, the final would count for 100 percent of our grade. I may or
may not have waited until the hour ended before walking out the back
door of Lecture Hall 1 toward the nearest bar.

Fifteen weeks later, suddenly mindful of various dire warnings from
my father about passing grades, continuing financial support, and the
strong connection between them, I cracked my econ textbook and began
a five-day cram session fueled by youthful energy and caffeine. When
I walked down to the bottom of Lecture Hall 1 to turn in my final
exam, one of the teaching assistants told me to place it in a pile
corresponding to my course section. I never attended a course
section, I replied. I'll always remember the look of resignation and
disgust that crossed his face.

A few weeks later, I received a letter informing me that I had
received a C on the final and thus the course. Accordingly,
Binghamton University, a prestigious, regionally accredited research
institution, awarded me four academic credits, which I applied toward
a bachelor's degree that I hold today.

Last fall, more than 100,000 people enrolled in a free online version
of the renowned Stanford roboticist Sebastian Thrun's
artificial-intelligence course. Many didn't finish. But some did, and
among them, some performed just as well on the assignments and exams
as the whip-smart students in Palo Alto who took the course in
person. For this, the online students received no official academic
credits of any kind.

That doesn't make any sense.

Over the last year, massive open online courses, or MOOC's, have
quickly traversed the cultural cycle of hype, saturation, backlash,
and backlash-to-the-backlash. Like blogs, MOOC's are interesting,
important, and stuck with an absurdly unserious name. But don't let
the silly-sounding moniker fool you. Some new things are praised to
the skies because people have a weakness for the shiny and novel.
Others are hyped because they will obviously change the world, and it
always takes the world a little while to adjust. MOOC's are of the
latter kind.

This became clear not when Thrun and his colleagues enrolled vast
legions of learners from around the world. The online Rubicon wasn't
truly crossed until Harvard, which had been studiously ignoring the
free online course movement, jumped aboard the bandwagon to become a
partner in MIT's MOOC venture, edX. University officials in Cambridge
were clearly anxious about missing the next big thing. Then, a few
weeks later, the University of Virginia's Board of Visitors fired its
president after reading about MOOC's in The Wall Street Journal.

Good intentions come and go. Status anxiety, by contrast, is the
great motivating force in elite higher education, and where elite
colleges go, others follow. In a stroke, the public perception of
online higher education shifted from down-market for-profit colleges
to the most famous universities in the world. It's hard to overstate
how important that will be to acceptance of this burgeoning
educational form.

Indeed, the future is so clearly one of universal access to free,
high-quality, impeccably branded online courses that their presence
can be simply assumed. The interesting questions now revolve around
financing, quality assurance, and-most important-credit.

At the moment, colleges have a monopoly on the sale of college
credits, the only units of learning that can be assembled into
credentials with wide acceptance in the labor market. Monopolies are
valuable things to control, and monopolists tend not to relinquish
them voluntarily. But the MOOC explosion will accelerate the breakup
of the college credit monopoly.

Someone scoring in the top 1 percent of students in a course taught
by a world-famous scholar and endorsed by a world-famous university
deserves no credit, while some slacker freshman who ekes out a C
deserves four credits? The most obscure, perpetually-on-probation,
nobody-ever-heard-of-it college can grant credits, but not edX,
backed by MIT, Harvard, and now Berkeley? Students can get credits
from for-profit higher-education corporations that buy up failing
accredited colleges and turn them into giant online
student-loan-processing machines, but not from Coursera, where online
courses are designed by hand-picked professors from universities
including Princeton, Duke, Caltech, and Penn?

That kind of crazy cognitive dissonance can't last forever. When it
breaks, and it will, we're headed for a world that looks something
like this:

Some accredited colleges-don't forget, there are thousands of
them-will start accepting MOOC certificates as transfer credit.
They'll see it as a tool for marketing and building enrollment. This
is already starting to happen. The nonprofit Saylor Foundation
recently struck a deal whereby students completing its free online
courses can, for a small fee, take exams to earn credit at Excelsior
College, a regionally accredited nonprofit online institution.

Pressure to accept MOOC credits will build and gradually move up the
higher-education food chain. Public officials eager to offer credible
low-cost options to parents and students fed up with rising college
prices will pile on. Many will question the quality of MOOC's, but
that's the great thing about empiricism-courses can be evaluated and
knowledge assessed.

Some organizations will develop businesses devoted exclusively to
credible, secure assessments of what MOOC students have learned.
Security and integrity will always be issues for online learning
(although I don't remember anyone checking my ID when I took my econ
final, or any final for that matter). But these are solvable
problems. Thrun's MOOC company, Udacity, is forming a partnership
with the textbook giant Pearson's VUE testing-center service for
exactly this reason.

Other companies will sell services designed specifically to support
learning online. This, too, is already happening. The tech company
Piazza, for example, provides online spaces for instructors and
students to ask and answer questions about course concepts and
assignments, for traditional and online classes. Piazza's offices are
in Palo Alto, just up the street from Stanford. That's not a
coincidence; as new modes of online higher education develop, the
ecosystem of start-up capital and innovation in Silicon Valley will
organize around them.

All of this points toward a world where the economics of higher
education are broken down and restructured around marginal cost. The
cost of serving the 100,000th student who enrolls in a MOOC is
essentially zero, which is why the price is zero, too. Open-source
textbooks and other free online resources will drive the prices of
supporting materials toward the zero line as well.

The cost of administering an exam to the 100,000th student in a
secure testing center, by contrast, isn't zero, so students will end
up paying for that. One-on-one access to an expert or teaching
assistant also costs money, so students who need those services will
pay for them as well.

Meanwhile, the dominant higher-education pricing model, in which
different students pay a single price for a huge package of services
they may or may not need, will come under increasing stress. Colleges
of all kinds will need to re-examine exactly what value they provide
to students, what it costs, and what price the market will bear.

I'm far from the first person to make these predictions. MOOC's just
make the future seem more certain?-and less distant-than ever before.
PHOTO SIDEBAR: Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle
SIDEBAR: Can MOOC's Save Higher Education? Massive open online
courses are all the rage-even though students receive neither credit
nor certification for taking them. Will they transform academe, or
are they a flash in the pan? In this package, five observers weigh
the impact of MOOC's:

Before You Jump on the Bandwagon --- By Alison Byerly

The Future Is Now, and Has Been for Years --- By James J.

Teaching to the World From Central New Jersey --- By Mitchell

Into the Future With MOOC's --- By Kevin Carey

Online Learning: More Than MOOC's --- By Beatrice Marovich

Kevin Carey is director of the education-policy program at the New
America Foundation.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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