Differences of Opinion on Online Courses

Tim Goral's picture

As edX , Coursera, and Udacity continue to build and launch massive open online courses (MOOCs)—and other would-be contenders approach the field—evidence and opinions are accumulating about how best to use such courses, the experience of learning this way, and possible applications of the evolving technology. Herewith, a survey of some recent perspectives, and some news updates on the users of an early HarvardX course and Coursera’s expansion into professional education.

Where the Learners Are
MOOCS have been touted as opening avenues to education for huge audiences in developing countries, but a pressing U.S. application lies in providing remedial or entry-level required classes for students at community colleges and financially hard-pressed public colleges and universities. Following an experiment in which San Jose State University (SJSU) blended edX’s course on electronic circuits with its classroom teaching, enhancing student learning, the institution has extended that experiment to 11 California campuses and agreed with edX to adapt courses in sciences, humanities, business, and social sciences.

Tamar Lewin of The New York Times, who is reporting a series of stories on online education, put this venture into a broader context:

Nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States arrive on campus needing remedial work before they can begin regular credit-bearing classes. That early detour can be costly, leading many to drop out, often in heavy debt and with diminished prospects of finding a job.

Meanwhile, shrinking state budgets have taken a heavy toll at public institutions, reducing the number of seats available in classes students must take to graduate. In California alone, higher education cuts have left hundreds of thousands of college students without access to classes they need.

Of the SJSU-edX blended-learning experiment, she wrote, “It is hard to say…how much the improved results come from the edX online materials, and how much from the shift to classroom sessions focusing on small group projects, rather than lectures.” (Lewin also covered a separate SJSU venture with Udacity that provides online mentors around the clock to help students through online basic-math courses—another pilot being expanded in scope and subjects.)

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