Online education: The coming revolution

It sounds like mob slang, but MOOCs are becoming the basis for a new menu of educational options.

A revolution in higher education is coming, said Danielle Allen in, and it’s all because of MOOCs. It sounds like mob slang, but a MOOC, or “massive open online course,” is actually a series of lectures streamed to tens of thousands of students across the country, instead of just to those in a classroom. By using such lectures as the basis for a new menu of educational options—ranging from degree programs mixing traditional and virtual classes, to purely online vocational training in, say, film or engineering—universities could tailor programs to individual students, offer access to the best professors in any field, and cut costs and tuitions significantly. San Jose State University, for instance, offers an online course for $150, rather than the usual $2,000 class fee. Last week President Obama jumped on the MOOC bandwagon, expressing support for “blending teaching with online learning.”

“How do you teach tens of thousands of people anything at once?” asked Jonathan Rees in Answer: You don’t. A lecturer can deliver information and transmit facts online—but that’s not an education. If I taught history through a series of rote lectures, “I’d be in another line of work right now.” Educating people requires teaching them what to do with these facts, and providing them with skills to get new information themselves—something only face-to-face interaction can provide. Colleges are intrigued by MOOCs simply because they would enable them to fire a lot of teachers and “drastically cut labor costs.” Critics of online education are dismissed as Luddites, said Sarah Kendzior in,but these courses replicate the two worst aspects of large universities: enormous class sizes, and a lack of mentoring and feedback. No wonder they have an average dropout rate of 90 percent.

Academics will fight progress “with every fiber of their being,” said Jonathan Chait in It would be sad if some lost their jobs, but it would be sadder still to insist that everyone who wants a college degree pay from $80,000 to $250,000 to get one. Our higher education system can’t be based on “maintaining living standards for college professors.” In an economy where a college degree is a prerequisite for a middle-class life, ignoring the online revolution will either doom poorer students to crushing college debt, or “lock them out of upward mobility altogether.” Let’s give MOOCs a chance.

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