28 February 2024

Can MOOCs and Universities Co-Exist?

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A generation of young Americans is bearing the brunt of decades of runaway college costs. Graduates are entering the workforce with staggering student loans that are inhibiting their ability to buy homes, cars and start families.

Massive open online courses—or MOOCs—hold the promise of bending that cost curve down. The genius of MOOCs is that they can reach millions of students. Their Achilles' heel, if they have one, is that they are impersonal.

With the growing pressure to lower the cost of higher education, we asked three experts to weigh in on the role MOOCs could play in the future of higher education, and how MOOCs might change the way we think about college.

Joining our roundtable discussion, by email, are Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who researches the social and economic effects of technology; Darryl Tippens, provost of Pepperdine University; and Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor of online learning at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Classroom Resilience 

WSJ: Do you foresee a day when MOOCs will replace classroom learning?

PROF. SHIRKY: No, I don't.

The places that do high-touch education well, the Oberlins and Reeds of the world, will be just fine. The places that are just using classrooms to deliver content in a low-touch way will suffer some displacement. But far and away the most important effect of online education will be to bring in people who aren't part of the current educational system at all, from people with degrees and jobs using them for retraining (which we already see a lot of) to people who could never have afforded an M.S. in computer science now [being] able to get one from Georgia Tech for less than $7,000.

PROF. SCHROEDER: I agree that MOOCs will not overtake traditional campus-based learning. Instead, they may reach the newly forming markets of just-in-time learners, job-credentialing and skills-updating. These are areas that have not been well-served by higher education in the past.

PROF. TIPPENS: The distinction between "campus-based" learning and "distance" learning will be blurred in the years ahead. It's already happening. We are finding that some graduate students at Pepperdine who are receiving face-to-face instruction are also asking that some of their coursework be delivered online. They want both/and. Thus, it won't just be nontraditional students in remote locations who will benefit from online instruction. The blended model of instruction is already working well. I expect it will expand.

PROF. SHIRKY: The experience of Penn State's pioneering World Campus bears this out. As the name suggests, the program was meant to pick up students from around the world, but the principal early effect was their own residential grad students taking classes online, usually just one a semester, to make their course load more manageable.

Click here for the full discussion in the Wall Street Journal.

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