MOOCs: A Necessary Academic Innovation in a Global Economy

rethink-mooc-webThe average American college student studies less hours than the necessary thirty hours per week, according to Alexander C. McCormick from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. While it is true that “the more students engage in educationally purposeful activities, the more they learn,” says McCormick, it has become increasingly clear that the way students learn and study greatly impacts their success. And so it happens, students find thirty hours of study time unrealistic. Exhausted from trying to please both professors and employers, students either drop out of college or look for ways to get out of the system they know to be idiotic. Many professors, including Anant Agarwal of MIT, agree that the way students currently learn needs to be adjusted to incorporate technological advances and changes in our society so that students don’t feel burnt out from hours on end of inefficient studying.

screamerWhile countries like Japan struggle to integrate technology into their education but realize the necessity for doing so, a large percentage of Americans still believe the myth that says their only chance of getting ahead means putting in sixty hour work weeks. The college professors who noticed their students’ plight decided to do something to correct these problems. Through research and personal experience, professors realized that cramming students’ minds with a fast-paced flow of information doesn’t benefit students in the long run. Some, if not most, students simply can’t put in the number of hours required to pass traditional classes. Thus, American culture is now witness to the creation and expansion of a new breed of online schools, including edX, Coursera, and Udacity, that work to provide students with free, self-paced classes taught by high-level college professors.

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) don’t yet offer college credit, but these new online schools provide the educational resource many students crave. EdX claims that all a student needs is Internet connection and a current browser. Although more MOOCs exist, Udacity, Coursera, and edX head the pack, paving the way for this new way of learning. Laura Pappano of the New York Times notes that Coursera, which was founded in January of 2011, reached 1.7 million students by the end of that same year. Andrew Ng of Stanford, Coursera’s co-founder, says that at its current rate, Coursera grows “faster than Facebook.” As the many changes in our society reshape the way we think about our lives and how we spend our time, education has lagged behind the trend. For example, the popularity of MOOCs intimates that a degree in the traditional sense of the word may no longer appeal to students as much as simply having an education and a good job.

Dr. Ray Schroeder, director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois, Springfield, notes that some students would like to receive some recognition or credit for classes, but developers struggle with how to provide this. EdX does provide certificates of completion as long as students pay a fee. Dr. Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, expects universities to start accepting edX certificates in much the same way as they already do with Advanced Placement. Even if students don’t receive college credit, one of Udacity’s goals is to help students find jobs and has great success in doing so because the courses are in partnership with companies like Google and Microsoft. Because most of the students taking these courses have already completed college level degrees and because of Udacity’s job placement goals, an acceptable form of recognition will most likely only encourage students without higher education to take the courses.

Interestingly enough, the majority of MOOC students already participated in higher education. The percentage of students that completed college degrees, over one third of which were graduate degrees, comes to seventy percent. In order to attract people driven to enhance their educations, these online courses must reach high standards, and according to surveys taken from MOOC students, they do. Sixty-three percent found the online courses better than on-campus courses, thirty-six percent said the classes were comparable, and only one percent stated that the online courses were worse. The one percent of students see the most room for improvement, but well-educated students with ideas about how to improve the courses may prove the most beneficial to this new educational system.

This new way of higher education is expanding and becoming more popular every day; however, it’s not without its problems. First, because all classes are online, many students cheat as it is so easy to do. Now, to avoid cheating, Udacity and edX offer proctored exams. Second, because the courses are free and do not require completion, the majority of students don’t engage in the assignments or stick with the courses. Though it seems negative, this could prove beneficial in the long run because students should want to become educated in order to strive for better jobs and to contribute to their society in a meaningful way. Trying to force students to do assignments causes resentment and poor quality work. Possibly allowing students to choose their own levels of success will help them take their classes more seriously.

gearsOne of the positive but unexpected results Udacity and edX created was student networking. In place of professor-student interaction, students organize study groups within their geographical area to help each other learn and even grade each other’s work. Coursera has study groups in roughly 1,400 cities around the globe in which students may get together to study or to socialize with people that have similar interests as themselves. These online schools allow for people to self-educate, expand their capacities, and to meet other like-minded people. For example, Jacqueline Spiegel, a woman who has her master’s degree in computer science from Columbia, enrolled in a MOOC course that connected her with women from India and Pakistan. She formed Facebook study groups and even started her own website, CompScisters, for women taking science and technology-focused MOOCs.

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