MOOCs heralded as free online education, but how free is free?

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MOOCs have been a heated subject of media attention lately, even attracting controversy in California's educational system. In theory, these large-scale free online courses (often featuring star professors from blue-ribbon universities) sound like an excellent opportunity for any person wishing to study subjects for no cost on their own. With the barriers of tuition and distance to conventional education, alternative, democratic and accessible ways of continuing studies through MOOCs, delivered online via YouTube or other websites, can seem like a dream come true. Meanwhile, the increasing difficulty for degree-seeking students of getting into required classes in many colleges, due to education cutbacks and shortages, likewise makes the choice to take a for-credit class that accepts unlimited students an appealing alternative.

So what is a MOOC? MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and is a form of online learning. Online learning is nothing new - free non-credit courses in several subjects have been offered by different instructors and companies on the web for some time now. Also, colleges have offered their own online for-credit courses taught by instructors employed by the college for their own enrolled student body.

What makes the MOOC different is that it is a program created by an outside vendor who licenses its courses to the university, who then offers them as part of their curriculum in a public-private partnership. The courses are taught by a videotaped instructor who is often part of another college, with the coursework and discussion guided by a teaching assistant contracted by the university, at a much cheaper rate than regular faculty. Corporations such as Coursera, Udacity, edX, Udemy and others have already contracted with universities (Duke, MIT, University of Michigan, and San Jose State University among them) to offer courses.

Increasingly the conversation is revolving around whether these courses are rigorous enough to be taken for college credit, how this would displace traditional faculty, and whether this "democratic" method of accessing education would mostly fall on working-class students, with wealthy students still getting personal attention in small classrooms with an instructor.

Five courses from Coursera have been granted for-credit status recently and college faculty have begun sounding the alarm about the effect this will have on students. MOOCs are notorious for a low completion rate (85 percent - 95 percent of students drop out or fail MOOCs), low instructional contact, and requiring fees (up to $90-$99) to enroll in these courses.

The New York Times reports: "Coursera recently announced another route to help students earn credit for its courses - and produce revenue. The company has arranged for the American Council on Education, the umbrella group of higher education, to have subject experts assess whether several courses are worthy of transfer credits. If the experts say they are, students who successfully complete those courses could take an identity-verified proctored exam, pay a fee and get an ACE Credit transcript, a certification that 2,000 universities already accept for credit.

"Under Coursera's contracts, the company gets most of the revenue; the universities keep 6 percent to 15 percent of the revenue, and 20 percent of gross profits. The contracts describe several monetizing possibilities, including charging for extras like manual grading or tutoring."

Faculty at California's San Jose State University recently issued a letter from their union, the California Faculty Association, stating their refusal to use MOOC course material. Included was a ringing criticism that goes to the heart of the discussion of student access to education:

"In an environment where faculty are constantly reminded that fewer resources for public universities are available, CFA is disturbed that President Qayoumi is not actively lobbying Sacramento and Silicon Valley venture capitalists for more public funding of education. The people with whom he associates, members of the Silicon Valley elite, are the very people who have succeeded in privatizing the wealth generated by our society and making the rules that reduce their tax obligations to California. The partnerships with Udacity and edX will put more tax dollars into the pockets of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and at the expense of the State's taxpayers."

Public college education in California used to be free to students. Universities in California offering accessible education were one of the main reasons Silicon Valley gained prominence as a locus of technological advancement and high profits. Companies that took advantage of this resource are now using loopholes in tax codes to avoid paying taxes to support public university education.

The growing wealth disparity in Silicon Valley points to a divide between the educated class of tech workers and working families seeing their own resources shrink. Dangling a "solution" like MOOCs for low-income students relying on public universities to attain degrees and well-paying jobs is predatory. Educational parity should begin with extracting, via taxes, the wealth of the region to fund accessible public education. MOOCs are corporations offering a bait-and-switch educational rental program in hopes of absorbing even more public money.

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  • I welcome the MOOCs. There has been a lot of discussion particularly around their ability to 'end' traditional university education as we know it. This could not be further from the truth. MOOCs are a fantastic way to allow people to improve their education with an authoritative, trustworthy and accurate source of learning, however I don't see the open courses replacing traditional learning any time in the near future. MOOCs only offer specific subjects and student do not leave with 'academic credit' or a degree. The open courses are also generally a form of learning, rather than assessment (and where there is an assessment, these are quite general interpretation and regurgitation of the information taught). Finally, while many open courses claim to offer the same learning resources as the full fee paying students, this is generally reserved to offering one component of such (i.e. just PowerPoints, course resources, or audio or visual lectures).

    Posted by Sandy-Joan Waverly, 06/11/2013 7:06pm (10 months ago)

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