O'Brien: MOOCs fall short of traditional education

The ever-increasing prominence of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, specifically from renowned institutions of higher education such as Stanford University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has caused much debate over their effectiveness and potential to revolutionize higher education. At this point, however, there is no reason to believe MOOCs, which have their fair share of flaws, can replicate a traditional education. Thomas Friedman’s column in The New York Times, “Revolution Hits the Universities,” sparked some debate among administrators and scholars from universities around the nation.

“I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world – some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh – paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion,” Friedman writes. “It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment.”

While Friedman’s column certainly expresses the belief that the MOOC is the future of education, I can’t help but be wary of some of the elements he brushes over, including demographics, retention, funding and effectiveness.

“Completion rates are terrible, at roughly 10 percent to 15 percent,” claims Beth Rubin, director of SNL Online at the School for New Learning, DePaul University, in response to Friedman. “There is limited formative feedback to help students develop critical thinking and writing skills; assessment is typically either computer-graded or ‘crowd sourced.’ While thousands of students may post in online discussions, most students do not get known as individuals, so there is little sense of social presence.”

Further, according to Dickinson College President William G. Durden, most MOOC-enrolled students are from the middle and upper class – the people already taking advantage of higher education.

While students may benefit from the knowledge that they obtain through MOOCs, which will be entirely dependent upon their personal motivation – organization, desire to learn and time commitment – the skills they obtain, if any, are not actually connected to a degree, and in this material society, that piece of paper means a lot.

And speaking of that society, let’s talk about money. According to Forbes, the cost of MOOCs also presents an issue.

“A good MOOC employs many tools, including blogs, online discussion boards, Twitter, tagging and document sharing (to say nothing of teaching assistants),” writes David Skorton and Glenn Altschuler. “The heart of the course, old-fashioned talking heads, is delivered via video. When done well, the production is complicated, time consuming and expensive. When done poorly, it is unwatchable.”

Not only are MOOCs not cost effective, but they also cannot provide the same experience and quality of education as a residential liberal arts college, such as Geneseo. And this hits close to home in the face of SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher’s recent State of the University Address.

One facet of Zimpher’s action plan includes Open SUNY which will implement 10 online bachelor degrees as well as make all general education courses across all SUNY campuses transferrable, allowing any student having completed a 60 hour AA/AS degree to transfer as a junior.

Despite the obvious benefits for students who, for whatever reason, are moving through the SUNY system, as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Long aptly put it in a Jan. 31 article in The Lamron, some of SUNY’s initiatives push in the direction of “interchangeability and uniformity.”

In turn, this has the potential to undermine the value of individual institutions, especially a small liberal arts college such as Geneseo, as well as the benefits of residential campus life on the whole.

And from the information presented thus far, MOOCs have the potential to do the same.