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A few thoughts about MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses

Educators are talking about the phenomenon of large-enrollment free online courses offered by very reputable professors and universities.

Now the University of Texas “is in negotiations with Coursera and edX, two of the most prominent companies engaged in the mass distribution of course content from elite universities for free online” (source: Texas Tribune). So I have to wonder if more large public universities — such as my employer, the University of Florida — will go this route as well.

I started a six-week course in computer programming at Udacity, another MOOC provider, but I wasn’t able to finish it because of work demands. Maybe I’ll get back to it. I’m not sure. But I found the course to be extremely well presented, and I was learning new things and enjoying the process. So I must say I’m a fan.

In an article published today, education analyst Kevin Carey wrote:

MOOC credentials … will signal achievement selectivity. Instead of running a tournament to decide who gets to take the class and very likely get an A-minus or A, they’re running tournaments to decide who did best in the class.

That rang a bell in my mind — and here’s why: There’s a stay-with-it aspect to finishing a degree program. Plenty of people begin a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree program and fail to finish it. So one thing you know about a person with a degree is that he or she completed something. Then there’s the brand of the school he or she attended: good or bad? Party school or academic powerhouse? Expensive? Elitist? Etc. No one much cares about your GPA unless you’re applying to a higher degree program. Your major counts more in some career fields and less in others.

But for the free, open, online course: Did you stick to it even though there was no grade? Even though there was no degree as an end goal? I think that’s what Carey is getting at — because, yes, pressure from many corners results in far too many students getting A’s or B’s that some years ago would have been C’s. And people who get C’s today would have outright failed in some cases in the past.

It may never come to pass that people receive the same kind of credit (official academic credit, provable with a transcript) from MOOCs that they get from completing a traditional college degree. But given the way traditional education is going — I’m talking about brutal budget cuts (especially in Florida) as well as grade inflation — maybe completion of a MOOC will mean you have in fact learned something thoroughly, while completion of a degree will mean only that you showed up and took the tests.

The standard of quality indicated by Udacity’s decision (last week) to cancel one of its courses is another thing that intrigues me about these new companies focused on MOOCs. The professor had spent 45 hours recording material for the course. Udacity had edited most of the video. But then, for reasons Udacity did not clarify, the organization decided not to offer the course, even though 20,000 students had signed up for it.

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