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Does the Future of Online Colleges Include MOOCs?

by Jim Sloan

Home >> Articles >> General Articles >> Does the Future of Online Colleges Include MOOCs?

Those with a college degree or some college credit under their belts remember the drill: You filed into a large lecture hall with a hundred other students, opened your notebook and scribbled while a professor droned on for 50 minutes or so about some arcane subject you were required to take so you had the prerequisites to take the really cool, small classes.

Well, what if that class had, oh, a hundred thousand students instead of just a hundred and you took it because you wanted to, not because you had to?

The World of MOOCs

Welcome to the future of online learning. After the enormous success of a couple of free online classes taken by tens of thousands of students around the world and offered by top professors from some of the best schools in the nation, universities are wondering if the future of colleges online is something far different than they ever imagined.

These massive open online courses, called MOOCs, have been rolled out at Stanford, Princeton and Harvard, and have top universities around the country wondering if the future of colleges online will include this approach. The latest of online college trends began last year when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun offered a free artificial intelligence course that drew 160,000 students from 190 different countries. Since then, millions have enrolled in hundreds of free online courses, and top professors have left their secure, tenured positions to start companies that help universities map the future of online colleges by designing MOOCs.

Colleges Studying the Process

Although colleges are not charging for the courses, they are using the feedback from these millions of students to refine their curricula and develop new ways of teaching and reaching large numbers of students. Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier was one of the first teachers to offer a humanities MOOC, which presented special challenges since exams are often based on essays and interpretations, as opposed to multiple-choice answers required in technical courses.

What's driving the interest in MOOCs? For colleges, it's their eagerness not to be left behind in the event that someone figures out how to give credit to students and make money off their enrollment. For students, it's basic curiosity and finances: How many of them would have been able to get into Stanford, let alone be able to pay the tuition, room and board? A MOOC gives them a chance to take a course at Stanford for nothing from the comfort of their home or office.

Give and Take

If you're wondering how someone like Duneier can grade 40,000 tests, rest assured that he doesn't have to. Essays and exams are graded by fellow students, and if you want your own grade, you have to agree to grade the tests or essays of five of your fellow classmates. Nevertheless, Duneier and his grad students are grading thousands of tests by hand to see how their student graders perform, and they've found the students are pretty close: The average peer score was 16.94 out of 24 possible points, while the teaching staff's average score was 15.64.

Although the number of enrollees in MOOCs is impressive, the number of students who hang around till the end is much less so. In Duneier's class, only 5 percent of those enrolling actually completed the class. Of the 40,000 who started the class, only 1,283 submitted final exams.

Will that change as the future of online colleges matures? Possibly. For now, colleges still aren't changing and they still aren't giving credit for those who complete an MOOC. When people start paying tuition for open, online courses and getting academic credit for their work, universities may find that they have a few more graduates to deal with at commencement.


The New York Times, "Daily Report: College of the Future May Be on the Internet," November 20, 2012

"Why You Should Root for College to Go Online," Clayton Christensen and Henry Eyring, September 26, 2011

The New York Times, "College of Future Could Be Come One, Come All," Tamar Lewin, November 19, 2012

"Can Online Education Be Both Successful and Good for Us?" Kanyi Maqubela, April 11, 2012

About Author

Jim Sloan is a freelance writer in Reno, Nev.

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