Wayne Carlson, the Dean of Students at Ohio State University hates the acronym “MOOC.”
But he’s pretty excited about the technology.
MOOC basically refers to classes that are put online, available to anyone in the world. They don’t count for credit, but they are free.
Thanks to Carlson, Ohio State just teamed up with Coursera, a tech company that is one of the biggest MOOC providers.
On-line education is nothing new for colleges and universities. It’s been a way for them to open their campuses to a wider audience, and generate revenue.
But over the past 12 months more and more colleges have started to open up their on-line offerings to anyone, and for nothing – no charge.
Transformational and Disruptive
“MOOC and the emerging technology are really transformational,” Carlson says. “They have the ability to really disrupt the way we do our business. And as a business, if we don’t pay attention to those disruptive processes we’re going to lose in the long run.”
Disruptive because many in the higher ed community worry that unless they’re careful, universities will go the way of newspapers and the music industry: give their product away for free online and lose customers in the process.
“There really is no business model present in these MOOC’s yet because nobody is charging anything,” Carlson says. “There is no revenue to split.”
While the content and lectures are traditional, the learning process is not.
Sometimes MOOC courses give tests, but often there is no assessment of what a student learns.
Often tens of thousands of students start a course, but many don’t finish.
A Huge Audience
At COSI, the science museum in Columbus, OSU Pharmacy professor Nicole Kwiek is worried about all that big picture stuff, but she’s more nervous about gearing up to teach her own massive open online course next summer.
“I’m excited to see and adapt my content knowledge to this huge audience and people who have never been able to take a pharmacology class in their lives or may not see the potential of science in their own lives or why it’s important now may see an application on why it’s important and say ‘huh, now I understand,’” she says.
Kweik works in the Generation Rx lab at COSI, which teaches visitors about the potential dangers of prescription drugs. Her class will be about the same thing.
Kweik’s class won’t start for another 7 months, but she’s already getting emails from potential students as far away as New Zealand and Arizona.
Flipping the Classroom
But using technology in college classrooms is nothing new.
Back on the Ohio State campus, chemistry class is in session and professor Matthew Stoltzfus, aka Dr. Fus is quizzing his students on last night’s lecture – the lecture they watched in the comfort of their dorms rooms and apartments.
Stolzfus has been using what’s called the inverted classroom model for a couple years now. Inverted, or flipped classes are ones in which students watch lectures at home, and do homework in class. Stolzfus posts his lectures online, and spends classroom time answering questions and helping students workout problems.
Students say they don’t watch every lecture.
“It’s hard to find time and willpower and watch every single one,” says freshman Adam Bross. Still, he says he tries to watch as many of them as he can, especially now that it’s later in the semester and the material is getting tougher.
Bross says he likes this class format, especially for hard-to-grasp subjects like chemistry, physics, and calculus.
Stoltzfus knows his students don’t watch all of his video lectures, but it doesn’t bother him.
“Everybody thinks videos are going to ruin education,” he says. “Well I would point across the street here to the chemistry library across the street, we have books on books on books on all of these chemistry topics. The content was out there before; we’re just putting it in a different format.”
Overhyped and Oversold
Dartmouth professor and Inside Higher Ed blogger Joshua Kim has been monitoring the MOOC movement for a while.
He says MOOC’s have a lot of promise, but he’s full of reservations.
“I do not think that MOOC’s will be the solution to the very real issues and problems of rising costs, unequal quality and limited access to higher education,” he says. “MOOC’s might be part of the solution but they are not the solution. So I worry that they are being overhyped and oversold.”
Even MOOC’s biggest cheerleaders have their concerns.
Employers want proof that a student learned the material. Universities would like to keep making money. Students would like to get credit for the classes they take. Professors don’t want to see their jobs outsourced to computers.
But MOOC’s, in their purest form, are education just because people want to learn.
“It’s a very utopian world where you want knowledge for knowledge sake,” says Wayne Carlson, OSU’s Dean of Students.
But the problem with utopian ideas?
“They don’t scale to the real world.”