Thursday, October 18, 2012

MOOCs versus online education offered by colleges and universities

MOOCs – or massive open online courses – have been abuzz in the media lately, and there are conflicting opinions about where they fit in the higher education spectrum. Many of these courses have been spearheaded by professors at Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and other well-known colleges and universities and are usually inexpensive or free.

Here at Peirce, we applaud any advancement that allows more students to access education, and MOOCs can provide learning opportunities to those who might not be able to attend a traditional college degree program. But there are key differences between MOOCs and online education programs offered by colleges and universities, the biggest being that most MOOCs do not result in college credit. While some institutions offer certificates upon MOOC completion, most cannot be applied toward a college degree program. We want to help add some more clarity to the conversation and explain some of the other biggest variances.

Faculty engagement. Anyone can sign up for a MOOC, so thousands of students can take any given course at the same time. With such a large class size, students rarely have the chance to interact with the instructor. Assessments in MOOCs are often peer-reviewed or automatically graded, so instructors usually don’t have the opportunity to guide students in their progress.

Conversely, many online programs offered by colleges and universities are structured so students can engage with their instructors frequently. Even though all or most of the interaction is done online, many instructors get to know their students, including their learning styles and how they’re faring in the class. One-on-one interaction is often crucial to helping students better understand and absorb course materials.

Class size. As I said before, class sizes for MOOCs can get pretty big. How big? A TIME reporter, Brad Tuttle, who’s taking a Coursera MOOC estimates about 50,000 students signed up to take the class he’s in. And when Stanford University computer science professors offered a MOOC in artificial intelligence last year, a reported 160,000 participants signed up. Larger class sizes usually mean students have to take more responsibility for their personal learning because instructors can’t give individualized attention to each student.

However, online classes at colleges and universities are often a fraction of the size of MOOCs, enabling them to be more interactive and engaging. There is no back of the classroom in small online classes, allowing all students to gain equal amounts of attention from instructors and get to know their peers, many of whom have real-world experiences to share.

Student support services. College and universities provide more than just classes. They also provide tutoring, student organizations, career development, and many other student services that foster a student’s success beyond the classroom and long after graduation. With MOOCs, students can only find help in online chat forums from peers, as instructors are rarely available for academic support. In fact, MOOCs typically have zero support services. Yet, student services are essential for engaging adult learners in their online programs, keeping them dedicated to their work and helping them achieve their ultimate education goals.

Tech support. Picture this: You’re an online student up late after a long day of work and you’re trying to catch up on your assignments. Suddenly, you realize you can’t submit your paper to the drop box due to some technical issue. Without 24-hour tech support from your education provider, you might not be able to solve the issue before the assignment is due. What do you do?

Most colleges and universities have 24-hour tech support in place, but many MOOCs only offer support during limited hours. This lack of support can be problematic for adult learners who are often studying and doing classwork at odd hours.

In short, online education programs from colleges and universities are typically accompanied by all of the student support systems of the institution. The college culture is still an integral part of the online learning experience, and online classes level the playing field for those who don’t have the time or resources to attend college in person.

By contrast, most MOOCs aren’t part of a formal collegiate curriculum, and as a result, lack the benefits of a dedicated faculty, small and controlled class sizes, student services and resources, and 24-hour tech support.

For now, the benefits of MOOCs lie in their accessibility and their low cost, but the future of MOOCs and their place in the higher education spectrum could change over time. The education industry should keep its eye on this trend as it moves forward.

What are your thoughts on MOOCs versus online education offered by colleges and universities? Which type is right for which students?