Online courses have growing pains, but are supported by secular trends

Stefanie Botelho's picture

On several occasions over the past few years, we have brought readers’ attention to the emerging world of massive, open online courses (MOOCs). Some institutions have embraced them, such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who teamed up to run the nonprofit edX. MOOC giant Coursera now partners with dozens of world-class universities, including Caltech, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, the University of Chicago, and Princeton. Udacity, founded by Google VP Sebastian Thrun, operates on a for-profit basis, focuses on tech-related subjects, and has teamed up with Georgia Tech and AT&T (T) to offer an inexpensive master’s degree in computer science. Other institutions–notably Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the UK–have yet to join the party.

Criticism of MOOCs

As online courses and programs have grown, so has a chorus of criticism. Participants in free MOOCs have a pretty abysmal completion rate–about 10 percent of those who sign up go on to finish the course. (Since they’re free, many who sign up may not be committed, but the numbers are worrisome to providers who generate revenue by charging a fee for a certificate of completion.) There’s concern about cheating by participants, who might, for example, pay someone else to take a final exam for them. Instructors at established institutions seem to fear that online courses will elevate popular “superstar” professors and exacerbate the “prestige gap” with their colleagues.

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