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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Free online courses impact models of higher learning

Companies arise to compete with universities for education

A recent surge of interest in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is sparking a revolution in higher education. Often regarded as the next great technological disruption in education, supporters of MOOCs have been lauding its potential to widen productivity in higher learning while relieving cost pressures.

MOOCs are mostly free, and are open to everybody. Taught by an instructor — usually a college professor, they are very similar to courses here at UMBC. Lectures, tests, and class assignments are given, but the main difference is that the lessons are on video. Work is done and submitted online, and all discussion of class topics takes place on online discussion boards, very similar to features that Blackboard offers.

The original MOOC was launched in 2008: a course called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” that was taken free-of-charge by 2,300 members of the general public along with 25 tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba. After seeing the potential in its concept, several Internet startups generated a business model for the low-cost online education market.

The current surge in interest in MOOCs began in 2011 after Sebastian Thrun, founder of Google X Lab, and Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research, attracted 160,000 students to a free online course on artificial intelligence, based on a course they had taught together at Stanford University. Thrun went on to launch Udacity, a for-profit company that offers MOOCs to train existing and future employees of partnered companies.

Coursera was launched in 2012 by two computer science professors, also at Stanford University. The for-profit company now offers more than 450 MOOCs, collaborating with 91 U.S. and international university partners. Though more than 5 million students are enrolled worldwide, they are charged no tuition. MOOC platforms mostly survive on venture capital and university support.

EdX is a MOOC provider founded in 2012 by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The non-profit company now offers courses from a consortium of 28 partnered universities.

MOOCs offer people all over the world the chance to connect with acclaimed college professors and experts in any particular field. Overseas populations can take advantage of the opportunity to get a taste of an esteemed U.S. university’s college course without having to spend any money.

Over centuries, universities have built and stuck to a tried-and-true business model that is now being threatened by the advent of MOOCs. To remedy the threat, universities have formed partnerships with MOOC platforms like Coursera. “MOOCs are attracting a large number of educated individuals seeking high quality, flexible education…Nevertheless, there remains an important need for traditional degrees, certificates and credentials from degree-granting institutions,” said Cathy Sandeen, vice president for Education Attainment and Innovation at the American Council on Education (ACE).

More research is needed to effectively measure MOOCs’ impacts on higher education and to implement effective methods that will improve academic outcomes. “Everyone in the research field agrees that, for the particular purpose of replacing on-campus education, the evidence is ambiguous at best,” said Andrew Ho, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“In large part, the experience is very good, but we see that there are problems, and there are a number of things that can be done that have promise,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX.

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