Will Free Online Courses Ever Replace a College Education?

MOOCs haven’t stolen students away from brick-and-mortar universities. Instead, they’ve become a genre of their own.

Introduction to Biology--The Secret of Life, a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) taught by Professor Eric Lander of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and offered through edX, an online learning platform and popular MOOC provider.
National Journal
Benjamin Winterhalter, The Atlantic
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Benjamin Winterhalter, The Atlantic
July 28, 2014, 10:11 a.m.

It’s 10:44 a.m. on a Tues­day, and I’m loun­ging at home in my pa­ja­mas, sip­ping chamo­mile tea. I am, at the same time, tak­ing a class at Har­vard. Pro­fess­or Gregory Nagy is rhaps­od­iz­ing about the death of Roy, the cy­borg from Blade Run­ner, and point­ing out how cer­tain tropes from his fi­nal so­li­lo­quy echo im­port­ant themes from an­cient Greek myth. The class is called “The An­cient Greek Hero,” and it’s one of many MOOCs (Massive Open On­line Courses) cre­ated by Har­vardX, the uni­versity’s on­line course pro­duc­tion com­pany. It ap­pears, from my lim­ited ex­per­i­ence, to be a fab­ulous class, which comes as no sur­prise, since it’s based on a well-es­tab­lished in-per­son Har­vard course of the same name.

The videos for this course are re­mark­ably el­eg­ant and pro­fes­sion­al, con­vey­ing a cer­tain vivid­ness that lec­tures at the black­board some­times lack. The dis­course on Roy’s death, for ex­ample, seam­lessly cuts to key scenes from the film, as pro­fess­or Nagy’s voi­ceover ex­plains the Greek no­tion of the “hora” (the “cor­rect mo­ment”). The pro­duc­tion val­ues are just as high in a Har­vardX course called “In­tro­duc­tion to Neur­os­cience,” in which film­makers use high-gloss an­im­a­tion to cre­ate a vi­brantly wacky clip about cell bio­logy.

Har­vardX is one of 29 in­sti­tu­tions whose con­tent ap­pears on edX, one of the biggest plat­forms for MOOCs. The com­pany that is now edX res­ul­ted from a part­ner­ship between Har­vard and MIT in 2012, al­though each school’s courses are its own.

The main thing that edX provides, bey­ond host­ing space for the videos, is the soft­ware ne­ces­sary to grade — and provide feed­back on — stu­dent work. This is no small un­der­tak­ing: MOOCs can have tens or even hun­dreds of thou­sands of en­rollees; edX alone counts about 2.5 mil­lion stu­dents since its in­cep­tion. Typ­ic­ally, however, only about 7 per­cent to 9 per­cent of these stu­dents ac­tu­ally fin­ish the course (though, to be fair, many of them don’t ever in­tend to). Des­pite the stag­ger­ing scale, edX’s soft­ware provides grades for all of them — not just on mul­tiple-choice quizzes but also on short-an­swer items and es­say-length re­sponses.

Ever since MOOCs de­b­uted, they’ve been an ob­ject of con­cern for many col­lege pro­fess­ors. In a let­ter pub­lished in The Chron­icle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, the philo­sophy fac­ulty of San José State Uni­versity de­scribed the MOOC as a “ser­i­ous com­prom­ise of qual­ity of edu­ca­tion.” They feared that MOOCs would come to be seen as re­place­ments for flesh-and-blood teach­ers. Soon, they warned, there would be no classrooms, only tech­no­lo­gic­al simu­lacra man­aged by teach­ing as­sist­ants, with all the re­wards flow­ing to a hand­ful of private cor­por­a­tions.

It’s worth not­ing that these com­pan­ies do, in fact, present them­selves as the fu­ture of Amer­ic­an edu­ca­tion. In the lobby of edX’s headquar­ters in Kend­all Square, near MIT, there are plasma TV screens that re­peatedly flash words like “cut­ting edge” and “to­mor­row” along­side the edX logo. And at the Har­vardX of­fice, the over­all at­mo­sphere is very much that of a tech start-up: open floor plan; huge iMac screens at every work­sta­tion; em­ploy­ees sit­ting on ex­er­cise balls; ideas writ­ten in mul­ti­colored mark­er all over the eras­able walls. These firms are cut­ting edge, and they know it.

They’ve also come along at a time when brick-and-mor­tal col­leges are fa­cing a num­ber of ser­i­ous chal­lenges. The ad­mis­sions pro­cess has be­come in­creas­ingly com­pet­it­ive; growth in ad­min­is­trat­ive budgets has out­paced raises for fac­ulty; more and more ten­ure-track lines have been re­placed by low-paid ad­juncts; and tu­ition has con­tinu­ally skyrock­eted. MOOCs, many seem to fear, will con­trib­ute to this trend, en­sur­ing the ul­ti­mate ob­sol­es­cence of the pro­fess­or.

The vast ma­jor­ity of as­sign­ments offered through edX (which you can try here) are graded not by a hu­man be­ing but by soft­ware called Open Re­sponse As­sess­ment (ORA, pro­nounced “aura”). Al­though edX’s MOOCs do of­fer some peer-graded as­sign­ments — and some even provide stu­dents with op­por­tun­it­ies to live-chat with a fac­ulty mem­ber or teach­ing as­sist­ant — stu­dent work is, by and large, eval­u­ated by al­gorithms that em­ploy tech­niques called “ma­chine learn­ing.” It works by find­ing cor­rel­a­tions between the grades as­signed to a “train­ing set” of re­sponses — which are graded by ac­tu­al hu­man be­ings — and cer­tain su­per­fi­cial fea­tures of stu­dent’s an­swers.

Pio­tr Mitros, edX’s chief sci­ent­ist, offered the ex­ample of a chem­istry prob­lem in which stu­dents are asked which factors de­term­ine wheth­er a par­tic­u­lar chem­ic­al so­lid­i­fies in­to a glass or a crys­tal. (The an­swers are “the rate of cool­ing” and “the com­plex­ity of the mo­lecule.”) After be­ing trained on the vari­ous ways in which stu­dents ac­tu­ally phrase these ideas, ORA can as­sign points ac­cord­ing to a rub­ric and even provide feed­back or hints to stu­dents who missed one com­pon­ent or the oth­er.

Sim­il­ar pro­cesses can be used for short-an­swer ques­tions in a vari­ety of dis­cip­lines. They can even be ad­ap­ted to grade es­says, which re­quires the com­puter to look at things like es­say length, sen­tence length, vocab­u­lary level, and punc­tu­ation.

Mitros, however, is care­ful to point out that no one — least of all edX — ser­i­ously be­lieves that auto­mated grad­ing can fully re­place a live in­struct­or. “Hu­man grad­ing and auto­mated grad­ing aren’t in con­flict,” he said. “It’s less a ques­tion of, ‘Will ma­chines grade in­stead of hu­mans?’ It’s more a ques­tion of, ‘When do you use ma­chine grad­ing versus when do you use hu­man grad­ing?’ “

He con­tin­ued: “If you asked me, ‘Do you want a school ex­per­i­ence where every single piece of text is graded by ma­chine?’ I’d say, ‘That’s a straw man. Nobody is pro­pos­ing that.’ ” Fur­ther, Mitros is happy to con­cede that there are cer­tain types of as­sign­ments — such as lit­er­ary cri­ti­cism — that ma­chines are very poorly suited to eval­u­ate. “They just aren’t cap­able of ac­tu­ally weigh­ing the qual­ity of a lit­er­ary ar­gu­ment,” he said.

In a sur­pris­ingly poignant con­ver­sa­tion­al turn, Mitros also em­phas­ized that, however ad­vanced ma­chine learn­ing may be­come, there is no sub­sti­tute for real hu­man con­cern and com­pas­sion. “Close­ness to teach­ers,” he said, “really does help stu­dent out­comes. If I know some­body’s go­ing to look at it, I’m go­ing to do a bet­ter job. Ma­chines are nev­er go­ing to re­place the need for the hu­man con­nec­tion — the idea that I cre­ated something and someone cares about it, someone cares about me.”

MOOCs may lack a cer­tain hu­man di­men­sion, but there is a sense in which they are bril­liantly demo­crat­ic. The classes offered through edX (which are — and hope­fully al­ways will be — free) are de­signed to bring con­tent from stor­ied in­sti­tu­tions like Har­vard and MIT to the masses. Un­like Cours­era or Uda­city, edX is a non­profit that re­ceives most of its money from its uni­versity part­ners, char­ging only for veri­fied cer­ti­fic­ates. The uni­versity part­ners, mean­while, re­ceive prom­ises of fu­ture rev­en­ue gen­er­ated from sev­er­al sources with which edX is ex­per­i­ment­ing, in­clud­ing char­ging fees for veri­fied cer­ti­fic­ates, li­cens­ing course con­tent to oth­er in­sti­tu­tions, and of­fer­ing ex­ec­ut­ive edu­ca­tion. For the time be­ing, however, com­pan­ies like edX are simply mak­ing elite-level courses avail­able for free to people all over the world.

It’s not clear, though, wheth­er MOOCs can ever really demo­crat­ize the Ivy League. After all, what makes Har­vard Har­vard is not what its gradu­ates know; it’s the ul­tra-strict ad­mis­sions stand­ards, the gilt-edged brand. An avid MOOC-taker can spend four years tak­ing the most chal­len­ging classes that Har­vard and MIT have to of­fer — and can totally ex­cel at them — and still come away with noth­ing more than a pile of cer­ti­fic­ates.

Ac­cord­ing to Robert Lue, fac­ulty dir­ect­or at Har­vardX, the ques­tion is not wheth­er Har­vardX’s MOOCs will re­place Har­vard, but how to in­cor­por­ate the in­sights from the MOOC re­volu­tion back in­to the tra­di­tion­al classroom. So far, the main les­son seems to be that old-school prac­tices are badly in need of an up­date. The buzzwords here in­clude “blen­ded learn­ing” and “flipped classrooms,” which refer to the in­teg­ra­tion of on­line con­tent and the re­struc­tur­ing of the lec­ture-then-ex­am mod­el of teach­ing.

“The MOOC,” Lue told me, “has been a cata­lyst that helped us real­ize just how dif­fer­ent things are. I have tried some blen­ded-learn­ing tech­niques in my own classroom and been startled by the res­ults. The level of per­form­ance was re­mark­able.”

An ex­pand­ing body of re­search sug­gests that provid­ing stu­dents with feed­back in real-time has a big im­pact on how much they re­tain. And this just so hap­pens to be something that MOOCs — and auto­mated grad­ing — do ex­cep­tion­ally well. As Mitros put it: “We have study after study sug­gest­ing that you learn very little as a res­ult of me talk­ing at you for an hour. Where­as if I con­vey in­form­a­tion to you for five minutes and then as­sess you on it, and re­peat that for an hour, you learn a lot more.”

For the time be­ing, MOOCs seem un­likely to take the place of phys­ic­al cam­puses — or even re­place for-profit uni­versit­ies, as Lue hopes they will. In or­der to do that, MOOCs would have to be­gin of­fer­ing mean­ing­ful cred­its — the kind someone could take to a job in­ter­view and ex­pect to have taken ser­i­ously. (For now, even though Har­vardX classes fea­ture the same con­tent as their in-per­son equi­val­ents, it’s not pos­sible for stu­dents to earn any­thing more than a cer­ti­fic­ate of com­ple­tion — the equi­val­ent of a “P” in a pass-fail class.)

So what is a MOOC? What makes it dif­fer­ent from a brick-and-mor­tar classroom? In the end, the an­swer may be ex­actly what it seems to be: a MOOC is a film. It’s easy to dis­miss col­lege-age kids as screen-ad­dicted zom­bies, but cinema has a par­tic­u­lar abil­ity to move people. It’s in­form­at­ive and en­ter­tain­ing; it’s lit­er­at­ure and pho­to­graphy at the same time. If noth­ing else, the MOOC-driv­en re­volu­tion may in­spire classroom in­struct­ors to make their les­sons more dy­nam­ic and fig­ure out what really ig­nites stu­dents’ ima­gin­a­tions. There is a reas­on they can’t take their eyes off the screen.

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