Ctrl, Alt, Educate

As if it weren’t already hard enough to get out of bed for early classes, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) may just make it that much more tempting to stay in. MOOCs are educational online courses available to the public, providing mass quantities of educational information through videos, lectures, and notes, which touch on all academic topics from philosophy to the data sciences. Although MOOCs have failed to deliver on the breadth of their initial promise — free and globally accessible online education — they have managed to transcend being simply an online classroom. In particular, MOOCs have extended unexpected benefits to teachers and job-seekers, even if they haven’t made education universal.

MOOCs were dreamt up as a tool that could provide free online education to learners from all over the world. With education costs soaring into the tens of thousands of dollars in the United States and with access to education still lacking in the developed world, MOOCs arose as an innovation that gave people the means to advance their educations for a fraction of the cost of a traditional education. In a 2011 New York Times article, Daphne Koller, a cofounder of the popular MOOC provider Coursera, wrote that “for the millions here and abroad who lack access to good, in-person education, online learning can open doors that would otherwise remain closed.”

But MOOCs aren’t meeting the lofty goal of education for all. Despite egalitarian intentions, growing commercialization of MOOCs has created paywalls around access to online education. In the late 2000s, a growing awareness of the industry’s profit potential spawned a capitalistic urge to monetize online course offerings. Inspired by the for-profit model of institutions like the University of Phoenix, many MOOC providers responded by offering “verified” certificates at a cost. Now most certificates must be paid for, although some MOOC providers, such as Coursera, have a financial aid process to accommodate anyone who needs a certificate but cannot afford one. While some MOOCs, like Khan Academy, have kept their offerings free, the commercialization trend is a strong and enticing one. In 2013 alone, Coursera generated $63 million from certificates and investments.

Although MOOC providers have begun to offer high school courses, the vast majority of MOOCs are designed for students who are already comfortable with complex concepts.

Furthermore, studies have found that the majority of students enrolled in MOOC courses already have college degrees. In fact, up to 80 percent of MOOC learners already have a degree from an accredited university or college in the United States. In a similar fashion, 80 percent or more of the international students that have enrolled in MOOC courses also have college degrees. The predominance of college graduates in online classrooms comes as little surprise, given that most MOOCs, especially those on Coursera and Edx, are modeled after college level courses, which require a higher level of background knowledge and acuity to understand. Although Edx and other MOOC providers have begun to offer high-school level courses, such as AP-styled classes, the vast majority of MOOCs are designed for students who are already comfortable with complex concepts. These trends suggest that MOOCs help the already educated more than they expand access to the uneducated.

Moreover, while this digital model of education offers flexibility, it lacks the accountability of a brick-and-mortar institution. Though enrollment remains high on paper, the structural flaws of MOOCs are becoming increasingly apparent. A University of Pennsylvania study concluded that out of one million surveyed learners enrolled in Coursera courses, only half watched videos for class, and barely 4 percent received a certificate of achievement. MOOCs that offer course certificates also differ significantly in the difficulty and rigor attached to receiving them. Obtaining certification on Coursera, for example, requires a user to complete at most a majority of the videos and all of the quizzes in a course, but on Futurelearn, a British MOOC provider, all a student needs to do is complete roughly 50 percent of the course. Together, these figures indicate that even where greater accessibility does exist, MOOCs do not lead students to complete courses and reap their benefits.

But if MOOCs have not realized their early promise to offer universal education, they have produced benefits unforeseen by their pioneers. Improvements in teacher ability are one such example. Harvard and MIT published a study of Edx, which stated that 39 percent of students on the site are teachers training to better educate their own students. Online courses allow public high school teachers to stay up to date on the subjects they teach and use more efficient teaching techniques, helping teachers to be more effective in the classroom and also enhance their curriculums. In addition, teachers are bringing MOOCs into the classroom to facilitate “blended learning.” In such cases, students watch videos at home and use those videos as a springboard for further problem-solving and discussion with their teachers at school. As Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, explains in a Scientific American article, “if a lecture is available online, class time can be freed for discussion, peer tutoring or professor-led exploration,” which facilitates a more self-paced and individualized approach. MOOCs have opened the door for new ways of effective teaching and have expanded the breadth of knowledge available in the classroom. As Coursera cofounder Koller put it, “for students lucky enough to have access to great teachers, blended learning can mean even better outcomes at the same or lower cost.”

Aside from improving their teachers’ instruction abilities, students have also begun to use MOOCs to finetune their college preparation. MOOCs are reflective of college-level learning, which is of paramount importance to admissions officers trying to parse the difference between students in an ocean of applicants. Since MOOCs are available to most high school students, especially in the United States, this option gives students a chance to learn at an academic level that may not be present in some schools and thus pushes students’ understanding of higher-level concepts. Indeed, 79 percent of professors think that MOOCs are valuable tools available to high school students who are entering college.

MOOCs have also proven helpful in offering candidates a leg up in the job hunt. Although MOOCs do not replace work experience or accredited classes and degrees, they can help boost chances of employment, most notably in the technology industry. Tyler Kresch, a graduate of University of California, Santa Barbara with degrees in philosophy and technology entrepreneurship, needed more computer science courses to be competitive in the technology industry. Instead of graduate school, he turned to MOOCs and took Edx courses by Harvard and MIT to help gain skills as a developer. He also took two University of California, Berkeley MOOCs on software and service. Using the knowledge he gained, he has created his own app and works as a junior developer at a Santa Barbara startup. Dan Farnbach, a 34 year old who took a MOOC on network analysis, had similar success. With the skills gained from his MOOC, he was able to work asn online editor at F+W Media, a magazine company. A Boston Globe article found that although different employers have different opinions on MOOCs, the overall consensus is that MOOCs do demonstrate a level of professional development on the part of the applicant. In 2013, about 50 percent of employers thought that the quality of education online was equal or better than that of traditional classes. Though certainly not the most important factor in getting a job, MOOCs can help applicants gain an edge over their fellow competitors.

Since their inception, MOOCs — like many education reforms — have been a mixed bag. In some cases, MOOCs have reformed the classroom and imparted a competitive edge to their students, be they professional job-seekers or high schoolers. At the same time, MOOCs haven’t changed the education scene in the ways that many hoped they would. Since MOOCs first burst onto the educational scene, the online education industry has faced much upheaval and has evolved away from its original goals of universal and affordable education. Today, MOOCs largely help the already educated, a significant, but nevertheless worthwhile, deviation from their original purpose. And while the MOOC phenomenon is still in its early stages and will need time to develop, the industry faces a crossroads of sorts. If it adheres to the spirit of accessibility and universality that made MOOCs so exciting in the first place, it can be an important tool for a better educated world.


Art By: Amelia White