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MOOCS: Significant Disruptor or a Fleeting Curiosity?

Higher Education

By Ben Nye (Arkansas)

The familiar image of a room with rows of students at their desks and a professor at the front delivering a lecture may be a thing of the past. The traditional model of higher education is being challenged by companies and universities offering free or reduced cost education through online video lectures and seminars for students. The question now is whether these MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, will become a serious challenger to brick and mortar colleges or merely a supplement to traditional models of higher education.

Consider Coursera: founded by former Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun, it is one of the largest MOOC providers in the world. In October, The Wall Street Journal reported that Coursera had enrolled over five million students and had developed partnerships with venerable educational institutions including Columbia, Princeton, Cal Tech, and Johns Hopkins to offer free academic lectures for students.

EdX — another MOOC provider created by MIT and Harvard — is currently offering a certificate completion series that was developed with input from companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Wal-Mart. Khan Academy, one of the first and most widely known providers of online video lessons, has now created over 5,000 videos with subtitles in 40 different languages. Speaking about the growth and success of MOOCs, edX President Anant Agarwal said, “We want to dramatically increase access to learning for students worldwide while, at the same time, reinventing campus education.”

Fraternities should consider joining the movement by hosting their own MOOCs or similar programs in ethical leadership, time management, career development, and other topics offered by the LEAD Program.

The Obama administration is taking notice. “A rising tide of innovation has the potential to shake up the higher education landscape. Promising approaches include three-year accelerated degrees, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and ‘flipped’ or ‘hybrid’ classrooms where students watch lectures at home and online,” the president said during a speech earlier this year. The president’s administration is hoping these MOOCs can help drive down the cost of higher education while maintaining a high level of quality regardless of location.

It appears that MOOCs may be doing just that. Writing for The Washington Post, Dylan Matthews noted that, “Single professors could handle classrooms with hundreds of thousands of students. The cost of providing degrees would plummet, making college vastly more accessible to those who want it.” Furthermore, MOOCs may not just lower the cost for students, but also for universities. Universities that develop partnerships with MOOCs may have the ability to generate much needed revenue by offering college credit for MOOCs. Blogger Martin Kich writing for the Academe Blog notes that, “Large state universities that adopt MOOCs that have been developed externally will most likely produce substantial, additional revenue from offering the MOOCs to [students] well beyond their currently substantial enrollments.”

MOOCs offer a great deal of promise: free lectures by university instructors, the ability to learn from any location, and a possible answer to the ballooning cost of higher education. Writing for The New York Times in January 2013, columnist Thomas Friedman said, “Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty.” Indeed, The New York Times had already named 2012 “The Year of The MOOC.”

The question before fraternities is whether MOOCs will have any impact on the number of students enrolled in traditional higher education programs.


In the midst of their high praise, MOOCs have also been subject to several criticisms. The Chronicle of Higher Education noted in April that the retention rate for most MOOCs “is around 10 percent.” Speaking last year to a representative from Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller stated that a typical course retains only 7-9% of its initial group of participants.

Another noteworthy statistic about MOOC performance was provided in a study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. Reporting in the journal Nature, the researchers found that 83% of the individuals enrolled in a Coursera course already had two or four-year degrees. An additional 44% held advanced degrees. Summarizing their findings, the researchers wrote, “The individuals the MOOC revolution is supposed to help the most — those without access to higher education in developing countries — are underrepresented among the early adopters.”

It seems that even some of the MOOC phenomenon’s biggest proponents are beginning to temper their expectations. “[MOOCs cannot] really move the needle on fundamental educational problems,” the aforementioned Daphne Koller told The Chronicle of Higher Education. Sebastian Thrun, Coursera’s founder, told Fast Company that, “We don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished.”

While it seems that much of the hype surrounding MOOCs is premature, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be helpful additions to higher education. As blogger Jeff Kesselman reminds the reader, MOOCs should be considered similar to textbooks. “Massively Open Courses have been around for a very long time. They are called ‘books.’ And reading a book may give you some familiarity with the subject but it’s not likely…to be at the same level as completing a college course in it.”

The question before fraternities is whether MOOCs will have any impact on the number of students enrolled in traditional higher education programs. While it isn’t looking like MOOCs will disrupt existing models of higher education anytime soon, fraternities should still monitor the movement as it progresses. For universities worried about losing on-campus students to more convenient online classes, fraternities are positioned to provide the social cohesion that is missing from classes that don’t offer face-to-face contact. And if MOOCs continue to evolve as a supplement to traditional classes – a much more likely path – then fraternities should consider joining the movement by hosting their own MOOCs or similar programs in ethical leadership, time management, career development, and other topics offered by the LEAD Program.

Institutions of higher education should anticipate MOOCs sticking around as their growth has been undeniable. In fact, universities would be wise to incorporate some of their methods into their course offerings. But to think that MOOCs will replace and radically disrupt the traditional university is premature. MOOCs are a great tool, but the difficult task of educating America’s college students will likely remain a function performed by the traditional college or university.

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