“MOOCs,” an acronym for “massive open online courses,” denotes an important, possibly a revolutionary, development ineducation. These courses are online, free of charge, open to anyone in the world who has a laptop and an Internet connection, and offered by entities with strange names such as coursera, codeacademy, edX, khanacademy, and udacity. The offerors are mainly university consortia or university-affiliated. Moreover, and critically, the universities are elite universities like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Columbia.
Not that online education is new; there are adult-education online courses such as are sold by The Teaching Company; there are even online college degree programs, offered mainly by for-profit colleges. What is new is the scale and potential of free online education offered by, or in conjunction with, the nation’s leading universities.
The courses, like conventional college courses, are sequenced by difficulty, enabling the student to progress from beginner to advanced. The courses cover not only a very broad range of technical subjects such as math, statistics, computer science, the natural sciences, and engineering, but, increasingly, also courses in the social sciences and the humanities. MOOCs ae not offered for credit; they do not count toward an undergraduate or graduate degree; they are (at present) for people who want to obtain not a credential but skills or knowledge, whether for enjoyment or to put to some practical use. Anyone anywhere in the world can enroll; individual MOOC courses are attracting tens of thousands of students. There are frequent quizzes embedded in each online courses, and sometimes there are mid-course or end-of-course exams as well. These exams are graded by peer groups (other students enrolled in the course—in one program a student’s exam is graded by five other students and the grade on the exam is the average of the grades given by the five graders). Some students form online study groups, or in-person groups with students who live nearby.
The format seems superior to the conventional lecture. The average quality of the lecturers is much higher, because there is no limit on the number of students “attending” the lectures and so no reason why any student should be stuck with a mediocre lecturer. The online format has other advantages. The student can scroll back, or fast forward—in short can go at his own speed, which he could not do in a live lecture. A first-rate lecturer can communicate more effectively than a textbook (and of course the student can supplement the lecture with a textbook), and, of great importance, one doesn’t have to travel anywhere to attend an online lecture. One can obtain in effect a first-class American college education wherever one lives and however little money one has. All you need is a laptop computer and an Internet connection. There is a problem of asking questions of the lecturer in a class of ten thousand students, but some MOOCs solve it by allowing students to post questions that the student body votes on, and only the most popular questions are put to the lecturer.
MOOCs are a very recent development; most of them are fewer than two years old. Only in the last month have they been receiving significant media coverage (there was, for example, an excellent article on them by Tamar Lewin in the November 20 New York Times). Maybe they will flame out. But I don’t think so; as I said, they have revolutionary potential.
It may help to see this by thinking of MOOCs in demand and supply terms. There are three types of demanders for such a product. One consists of retirees and others seeking mental stimulation. Another and larger type (in part because it is more international) consists of persons, mainly young but also some middle aged, seeking to acquire skills that will contribute to their careers. And the third, which at the moment is potential rather than actual, is degree seekers. It is merely potential because the MOOCs don’t offer college, graduate, or professional degrees. They can’t, without a more rigorous method of evaluating performance. Apart from the limitations of student grading, there is the problem of plagiarism in the Age of Google when an exam is taken at home. (There is no problem of plagiarism when an online course is not offered for credit.) Even if these problems could be overcome, there would be the problem of basing evaluation of a student’s performance entirely on lecture courses—no small courses, no personal interaction with faculty, no seminar papers or senior theses.
There would also be a problem arising from the heterogeneity of an international student body admitted to the online college without selectivity and therefore with great variance in levels of preparation. The mediocre performance of a student from a backward country might signal far more intellectual promise than the superior performance of an upper middle class student from an advanced country.
On the supply side of the MOOC market, there is the problem of developing a viable business model. As long as the market for MOOCs is limited to the first two groups of demanders—persons seeking intellectual enrichment and persons seeking marketable skills—the costs of providing the product are very low. They primarily consist of modest bonuses for the lecturers—modest because most lecturers would consider a huge expansion in their audience to be a substantial bonus in itself, as well as auguring a likely very large market for their textbooks, though the overall market for textbooks will decrease as MOOCs catch on. On the benefits side, even without sale of advertising space or the charging of an enrollment fee, MOOCs provide cheap advertising for the colleges and universities that provide the lecturers.
The question of supply and hence of the optimal business model becomes acute only if providers of MOOCs decide to award degrees and thus tap into the vast market for college, graduate, and professional education. Now enrollment would have to be limited (it would be limited automatically once an admission fee to the program was charged) and now higher costs would be incurred: admissions personnel would have to be hired to decide who would be admitted, financial personnel would have to be hired to collect fees and administer student loans and scholarships, graders would have to hired and online exams monitored, provision for seminars and thesis supervision would have to be arranged—in short many of the expenses of a conventional college or university would have to be incurred. But the expenses would be much lower per student because there would be so many more students, and so fee revenues could be huge even if the fee for enrolling were very modest. For example, costs of room and board would be very low because students would live and work at home.
Harvard has about 6600 undergraduates. One can easily imagine an online Harvard enrolling 66,000 undergraduates with no diminution in the average quality of the students. Or 660,000, for that matter, because it would be drawing from the entire world. But then what happens to the physical Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its resident students? If it remains, there will be a lingering suspicion, and quite possibly the reality, that a degree from physical Harvard is a more valuable credential than a degree from online Harvard—but also there will be elite students who will decide that the cost and possibly quality advantages of online Harvard (quality advantages because only the very best Harvard teachers will be invited to lecture online) outweigh what initially at least would be the greater prestige of a degree from physical Harvard.
A movement toward online higher education could have an enormous impact on American higher education, comparable to the impact the Internet has had on bookstores and publishers. There would undoubtedly be a very rapid and considerable consolidation of colleges and universities. Would quality fall? I imagine it would increase. A harder question is whether the movement toward online higher education would be stymied by the desire of students for conventional extracurricular activities such as sports and the excitement of living away from home, with other young people. No doubt many American, though few foreign, students would feel that way (college students in most foreign countries live at home rather than on a college campus). But offsetting such a preference would be much lower tuition and living costs and access to a better college, since there would be no physical limits on the size of a college. There are many more than 6600 high school graduates who meet Harvard’s admission standards; all who do could be admitted to online Harvard at no cost to Harvard.