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The emergence of ‘MOOCs’ opens possibilities, and some perils, for academia.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Larry Sabato doesn’t need to teach a free online course to become a celebrity professor. The director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics is one of the most visible and quoted academics in the country, analyzing topics as broad as presidential elections and as close to home as your local House of Delegates race.
But this fall, Sabato will enter the brave, new world of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs. Sabato will lead a free online course examining the administration of President John F. Kennedy and his legacy in the half-century since his assassination. The noncredit class will be offered through the educational technology company Coursera, a Silicon Valley startup that partners with some of the nation’s top universities to offer free online courses.
Sabato said he was willing to conduct the course as part of UVa’s experiment with MOOCs, one of the hottest trends in American higher education. Companies such as Coursera and Udacity and the nonprofit edX have partnered with scores of universities in the U.S. and abroad to offer online courses on their sites, potentially expanding the institutions’ reach to millions of students worldwide.
Virginia Tech, which has developed its own strong distance-learning program, is not making an institutional push to experiment with MOOCs. Nor is it discouraging faculty from exploring opportunities. The Roanoke Times reported Monday that Tom Sanchez, a Tech urban affairs and planning professor, teamed with an Ohio State colleague to teach a course through Coursera for 21,000 students.
Advocates promote MOOCs as vehicles to expand access to higher learning, opening virtual doors to those who otherwise might never set foot on a college campus. The open platforms also can help educators share knowledge more broadly and, through collaboration, improve course content.
But, for academia, the possibilities come with perils. Sabato said universities must come up with a business model that ensures they don’t give away their intellectual product, which costs money to develop and sustain. Some have raised concerns that branded online courses offered by elite universities could diminish traditional programs at smaller colleges that thrive on face-to-face interaction between faculty and students.
Coursera now has plans to partner with 10 public university systems — including West Virginia University and systems in Tennessee — to create for-credit courses that students can take online or in the classroom to count toward degrees.
Some institutions will use the partnership to make high-demand introductory and required classes more available to their students. Georgia Tech recently announced plans to team with Udacity and AT&T to offer a low-cost online masters program in computer science that could produce 10,000 degrees in three years.
The emergence of mass online course delivery could be a positive force by expanding access to higher education and reducing costs. But if MOOCs become the college equivalent of big box stores, something valuable will be lost. The programs should serve as a complement to on-campus learning, not a replacement. Virginia’s public universities are wise to proceed with caution.
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