Online courses began around 1990 with the growth of more widespread access to the Internet. They spread rapidly in the United States during the last half of the 1990’s buoyed by the dot-com boom, and fell sharply after that bubble burst. During this early period, online courses typically charged fees. Some of the courses catered to individuals who wanted to improve their job prospects, others were meant solely for intellectual enjoyment, while some could be used to obtain college degrees. For-profit schools with physical facilities, such as DeVry University and the University of Phoenix, were often sponsors of online courses, although a few of these courses were sponsored by nonprofit universities.
What is new about the MOOCs (which stands for “massive open online courses”) is not the use of the Internet to instruct in particular subjects, but that they are free, and they often are sponsored by some of the very best universities, such as MIT, Harvard, and Stanford. Since they cost little if anything to take, it is much easier for the MOOCs to get massive enrollments than the fee-charging courses offered during the earlier boom in online courses. Various recent articles on MOOCs in the New York Times by Tamar Lewin show that the massiveness of the enrollments is somewhat misleading since, as one would expect with free courses, the great majority of those initially enrolled fail to finish. Still, the number of persons who do finish these courses is very large compared even to what are considered very big enrollments in on-site courses.
Aside from typically being free, the other unique aspect of MOOCs is that many of them are sponsored by known, often well-known, private and public universities. Since so far these universities get no revenue from the MOOCs they offer, the motivation is teaching to much larger audiences, favorable publicity for the universities involved, and the prospect of eventually earning revenue from these courses by charging fees or in other ways. The cost of offering these courses is typically not large since even the super star professors who sometimes lecture in online courses are quite cheap, and they may even do it without receiving any payment since they too want to spread knowledge and their influence.
Particularly given my long time interest in human capital, I have been excited by the prospects of online education since the 1990s. Indeed, I was a little involved at that time in helping to develop a for-profit company that offered fee-charging courses to men and women who wanted to improve their skills so that they could get better employment opportunities. Online courses have many advantages: they can enroll large numbers of students from many countries and of various ages, individuals can take them at their convenience from their homes and when they have free time, online students can easily communicate with each other even when they are located in different countries, and enrollees can get quick feedback from their answers to quizzes and other questions posed by instructors.
The equally obvious downside of online courses is that they do not involve direct personal contact with online instructors and classmates. No one yet really knows how important such direct contact is to the learning process. It likely varies from student to student, and depends also on the materials covered, and how the instructor conveys what he or she knows. I do not expect online course programs to compete effectively in the next decade against the education offered by top universities, although that may be because I do not appreciate fully how comfortable young people are with online communication. Still, I do expect online instruction to become very good substitutes for the thousands of courses offered by lesser schools.
Since online courses are so convenient and will remain relatively cheap, I expect them to spread rather rapidly sometimes even when they are decidedly inferior to courses that allow personal contact with instructors and fellow students. Online courses are likely to be particularly popular in developing countries because the worldwide boom in higher education during the past several decades has meant that many developing countries are trying to rapidly boost enrollments in higher education. A good example of what might happen in higher education in these countries is provided by the installation of cell phone towers in many poorer parts of the world, such as rural India and most parts of Africa. Poor families in these areas are now able to use cell phones to communicate with the outside world without their governments or private companies having to lay expensive phone cables for wired phone service.
Similarly, building physical facilities to accommodate very large numbers of new enrollees in higher education would be quite expensive for developing countries. When access to the Internet becomes widely available in developing countries-it already is in China- online courses that qualify for credits toward a college degree would be a substitute for physical facilities. These degrees typically would not be of the quality offered say by Peking University in China or the IITs in India, but a system of higher education should have a diverse mixture of schools with different approaches to teaching and offering various qualities of education.
In summary, I expect online education to be a rapidly growing part of the higher education landscape, especially in developing countries that want to expand quickly higher education opportunities.