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How Massive Open Online Courses and Distance Learning Affect Education

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are courses offered for free via the Internet, and provide education and training to large numbers of people separated by vast distances and economic circumstances. MOOCs differ from usual online college courses, which are generally limited to pre-qualified students who pay tuition fees. Despite the mixed results of educational innovations before their introduction, advocates hope that MOOCs will finally meet the goal of every public educational system: The transmission of information and concepts effectively and efficiently, with high retention at the lowest possible cost.

But results to date have been mixed for the sponsors of MOOCs, as well as for students. While interest in MOOCs is high, few participants actually complete courses. Educational institutions struggle with the problem of credit transferability and credentialing. And employers have been reluctant to accept that completion of online courses reflects mastery of a subject. Furthermore, overall costs for education have not been reduced – they’ve simply shifted from student to institution.

Nevertheless, MOOCs have strong and visible advocates in the educational and business fields who continue to evolve the offerings and are confident in their potential. Understanding the potential of MOOCs to transform traditional education begins in understanding their past.

The Evolution of Distance Learning

The roots of online learning are in the correspondence courses that initially appeared in England in the 1840s. Issac Pitman, a private school teacher who developed the most widely used system of shorthand, offered the first distance learning course whereby he and his students exchanged lessons and corrections via postcards. His concept was quickly adopted by others (including colleges and universities) as a method of extending their market beyond the immediate areas around their locations.

The University of London was the first to offer distance learning to students, and is credited with opening the door to higher education for those who could not afford the costs of an onsite education. Universities also used distance learning as a method to keep past graduates up-to-date with the latest advances in their fields.

Correspondence Courses

While some colleges and universities in America had limited correspondence offerings in the late 1800s, the privately-owned International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pennsylvania perfected the concept in the 1890s, aggressively selling technical courses on the installment plan as a method to provide “practical men with a technical education, and technical men with a practical education.” Early sales literature promised enrollees that they were not only earning a diploma, but one “secured after a hard examination, [that] will be looked upon by employers as a guarantee of ability for those who possess it.”

For years, distance learning consisted of instructions, lessons, and grading exams being passed through the mail. The business was very lucrative, with more than 300 schools offering correspondence courses in the United States by 1926. Most schools required students to pay fees upfront and had no-refund policies. Since 90% of students dropped out before completing their study, the firms enjoyed high profits, their largest costs going to advertising and sales commissions, rather than course quality. Universities quickly rushed to cash in on the “golden goose,” offering their own versions of distance learning of no better quality or results than their corporate counterparts.

Alexander Flexner, a renowned American educator, called the role of many of America’s most prestigious universities in correspondence class offerings at that time “scandalous,” especially that the “prestige of the University of Chicago should be used to bamboozle well-meaning but untrained persons…by means of extravagant and misleading advertisements.” In his view, those schools who offered correspondence courses had “needlessly cheapened, vulgarized, and mechanized themselves,” reducing themselves to the “level of the vendor of patent medicines.”

The Promise of Radio and Television

Purveyors of distance learning were quick to adopt the new technologies of radio and television to education. In the 1920s, universities and for-profit educational systems acquired broadcasting licenses to develop “schools in the air” for use within traditional and distance education programs. But while there were great expectations for the media, actual results of educational radio were disappointing. According to a 1942 article “Radio in Schools of Ohio” in “The Educational Research Journal,” a 1940 college-level course offered by radio “failed to attract any enrollments.”

Radio’s real role in distance learning was setting the stage for the technologies that were to follow. Many hoped that television would finally fulfill the hopes for a successful public education alternative that radio failed to meet. National Educational Television began on May 16, 1954, and was transformed into the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1970. Ironically, television may be more apt to be blamed for the decline of education – Boston University’s president Dr. Daniel Marsh warned that “if the [television] craze continues with the present level of programs, we are destined to become a nation of morons.”

Many observers now agree that the failure of television and radio to reach its goal to revolutionize education was due to the lack of interaction between broadcaster/teacher and listener or viewer. In that regard, the media was no better, if not worse, than sitting in a classroom listening to a boring teacher.

The Impact of Computers and the Internet

But things have changed in the 21st century. Computers, mobile phones, and the Internet have finally made online or distance learning a reality, with teachers and students being able to easily interact. According to research, in 2012, almost one-third of college students (more than six million students) were enrolled in an online course, and millions of pre-college students are estimated to be enrolled in online learning. The bulk of these courses differ from the MOOC model in the following ways:

  • Curricula is developed and offered by the colleges that the students attend or plan to attend
  • Enrollment typically requires qualification and pre-approval to enroll
  • Students are rigorously tested to ensure that the material has been learned
  • The schools publicly certify course mastery by issuing diplomas or course credit

However, the popularity and success of modern distance learning courses may be indicative of the potential for MOOCs. Many universities offer free non-credit-earning online courses with the same intent as expressed by Yale University to “expand access to educational materials for all who want to learn.” Most of the courses are simply video sessions of past lectures and are typically considered community service and outreach, public relations, or marketing.

Computer Internet Impact

MOOCs and Their Promise

Massive open online courses were initially hailed, with people such as Sebastian Thrun hoping to create a “teaching revolution in which the world’s best instructors conduct highly interactive online classes that let them reach 100,000 students simultaneously and globally.” They have attracted millions of investment dollars with the investors’ expectation that MOOCs will revolutionize education. For example, Coursera was started by Andrew Ng, a Stanford University professor, with funding from venture capitalists Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and New Enterprise Associates.

Proponents of MOOCs believe the popularity of MOOCs and online learning in general is evidence of their value as a disruptive innovation, changing the way we will educate our children in the future. The ability to teach large classes with each student progressing at their own rate – and at costs below traditional methods –  is the Holy Grail of education. The design of MOOCs is based upon the innovative uses of audio, video, and electronic media transferring information over long distances inexpensively, thereby reducing the need and expense of  high student-to-student and student-to-instructor communication.

If the promise proves valid, some project that MOOCs will ultimately replace on-campus education, making residential colleges obsolete. However, the initial experiences suggests that adequate instructor connection and feedback, including student interactions, is more important than originally envisioned. As a consequence, the savings initially projected through reduced educational staff has not yet been and may not be realized.

MOOCs and Their Reality

Like many disruptive ideas and products, initial ambitions and goals are rarely achieved without several cycles of iteration. The future of a nation depends upon the knowledge and wisdom of its citizens, and MOOCs appear to be the ideal way to raise the educational level of the community at large, thus making citizens more economically competitive and politically astute. However, the following obstacles must be improved before MOOCs could be considered a success.

1. Quality of Learning

Unfortunately, no one knows how much students learn from MOOCs. Shanna Jaggars, assistant director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says, “At this point, there’s just no way to really know whether they’re effective or not.” The latest research suggests that MOOCs are still a work in progress.

On December 5, 2013, the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education released research that shows the following:

  • Few users persist to the end – completion rates are very low, averaging 4% across all courses
  • Participation – the total number of individuals accessing a course – varies enormously depending upon subject
  • User engagement falls off rapidly after the first 11 to 12 weeks of a course, and only about one-half of enrollees viewed at least one lecture

Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois, Springfield, says three things matter most in online learning: quality of material covered, engagement of the teacher, and interaction among students. “The first doesn’t seem to be an issue – most professors come from elite campuses, and so far most MOOCs are in technical subjects like computer science and math, with straightforward content. But providing instructor connection and feedback, including student interactions, is trickier [due to the sheer numbers of students].”

As long as anyone can sign up for a course without prior qualifications and there is no credible testing method to measure mastery of materials (plus no financial consequence for failure to complete), it is unlikely that MOOCs will fulfill the goals of their supporters.

2. Educational Resistance

The transfer of course credits between institutions is unusually difficult, as the decision to give credit for work performed elsewhere is at the discretion of the receiving school. Conventional colleges and universities largely refuse to accept transfer credits of MOOC courses, and some school officials even question the educational value of the courses. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Association of Colleges and Universities, says, “I would never [as an employer] consider an undergraduate who pieced together their education without faculty supervision from a set of courses that are out there in cyberspace.”

“If one is going for the knowledge, it’s [a MOOC] a boon, ” says Dr. Ray Schroeder of the University of Illinois. “If one is looking for credit, that is one of the challenges. How do we fit this into the structure of higher education today?”

3. Cost Savings

While initially introduced as a way to cut public educational costs by reducing teacher head counts, online learning has actually increased demand for teachers and related personnel to design, develop, and deliver online learning modules in order to maintain the critical student-teacher interactions essential to effective learning. As currently designed and operated, MOOCs seem best suited to those students who are capable and willing to work alone with minimal instructor interaction outside the video classroom.

At the same time, the innovative and creative ways of delivering information pioneered by the MOOC model has clearly raised the quality of instruction by making extraordinary professors and teachers available to a greater number of students. While cost reduction was expected to be a major benefit of MOOCs, the real advantage may be the improved quality of education through online learning.

Cut Public Educational Costs

The Future of MOOCs

Even as sponsors of MOOCs attract millions of dollars in venture capital and enroll millions of students for courses ranging from “Drugs and the Brain” (Coursera), to “Decision Skills: Power Tools to Build Your Life” (NovoEd), there are some educators urging caution that this model must continue to evolve before it will succeed. As quoted in the New York Times, James Grimmelman, a New York Law School professor who specializes in computer and Internet law, says, “No one’s got the model that’s going to work yet. I expect all the current ventures to fail, because expectations are too high.”

Some believe that the future of MOOCs is less grandiose than originally hoped. Some believe the future lies in providing vocational training, a strategy upon which Udacity will focus according to founder Sebastian Thrun. Others believe that the future lies in better instruction of the humanities and creativity, rather than technical subjects such as science, technology, engineering, and math, or in  providing supplements to existing classroom instruction, a concept called “flipping.” Examples of the combined approach would include the collaboration between San Jose State and edX, or instructional videos from Khan Academy that supplement secondary and post-secondary classes.

Final Word

As Valerie Strauss, education reporter for The Washington Post, observed following the University of Pennsylvania report, “MOOCs, to be sure, are still new, and online education is certainly here to stay. But these results should help temper the exuberant claims that they will be the future of higher education.” Certainly, knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a worthwhile pursuit, and MOOCs have proven that they can deliver educational information effectively and inexpensively to those with the discipline to take advantage of the technology.

Have you ever taken an online course? Did you complete it?

Michael Lewis
Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.

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