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The Quality of Massive Open Online Education: How Free is it?

Posted by Samantha Calamari on
Media Alliance

A blog from MA board member Samantha Calamari on education, the internet, what we are gaining and what are we losing?


The Quality of Massive Open Online Education: How Free is It?

The Movement to MOOCs
The manner in which we seek and receive information is transforming at a rapid rate. So fast, in fact, we can’t even see it change before our eyes. Since I last wrote back in early 2011, the concept of oneline is becoming more mainstream across educational institutions and content providers. Access and cost were key factors in bridging the divide to those who, because of economic status, lacked resources such as equipment and internet connectivity. In that moment, schools were exploring ways to offer their students more efficient means of accessing course work. Now, a mere 22 months later, the focus on an internal student body has shifted to a global student body.

Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs are the latest wave in the online education “tsunami” and they might just be the biggest wave of all. Not just because of its size but because of its ripples. The idea behind MOOCs is to provide free online courses from accredited universities and colleges to anyone, anywhere. The subject matter can range from Computational Investing (Georgia Institute for Technology) to Introduction to Guitar (Berklee College of Music). The course can be asynchronous (not time or place dependent) or synchronous (specific time and place dependent). They can be self-paced or run for the equivalency of a college semester.

So far in this movement, three main platforms have led in the delivery. There is Edx which host courses from Harvard, MIT, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Texas system, Udacity which works with individual professors to build out their online courses, and Coursera, the largest reaching of all the three, with 33 institutional partners and over 206 courses offered. Since Coursera’s beginnings in April 2012 (a mere 8 months from the time of writing this article), they claim to have reached an audience of 1.3 million students. That number grows in the hundreds and thousands every day.

Endless Positives for the Potential Student
When presented with the availability of free classes from some of the worlds’ most prestigious universities, the benefits can seem endless. First off, there is the cost or lack thereof. The claim across the MOOC world is that the “open” part of Massive Open Online Courses means that no monies are exchanged between the students and the platform or institution. So free really does mean free.

Secondly, students can access the content anytime from anywhere. While there are still issues around the “digital divide” (67.9 million people do not have internet access according to Harrison Weber’s “Our Digital Divide: Not everyone is as lucky as you to be reading this article”, The New Web, July 23, 2012) as discussed in my previous article, there is no argument that the internet is widely available and the global population is connected. But now the conversation has shifted to not who has access but where and when there is access. In the case of MOOCs, the freedom of accessing information when and where it is convenient for an entire population is making the accessibility a reality.

In addition to these two basic advantages, MOOC students will have career development opportunities they may not otherwise have. One can not only take a course to increase their skill base (or simply for personal growth and interest) but some platforms are beginning to explore “opt-in” options which connects students to potential employers. Because this is a new model, the impact has yet to be felt but if a course directly links the students with employers, the need for the other middle man (aka higher education) becomes moot.

Furthermore, students will have access to courses at global universities with direct links to professors and fellow classmates with whom they would not otherwise have connections. The expansion of this educational community suddenly becomes vast. Imagine the potential of global networks, think tanks and general peer building once this snowball starts rolling.

MOOCs Glass Ceiling
As we rattle off the list of MOOCs’ potential positives, we begin to run up against their limitations. In a venture that is so new and uncharted, there are many layers that have yet to be uncovered or explored at all. The first is the confines of a delivery platform for a mass audience. A major challenge that MOOCs pose is not just how information is fed to a student but how the student interacts with that information and then assessed on their comprehension of that information. In other words, how do you grade a class of 20,000 people? Currently, there are various experiments around peer assessment and autograding models but thus far, it remains a quagmire in the world of assessing the masses.

Another mind-bending obstacle is replicating in-class academic rigor in an online space. How can you capture a dynamic lecture or an unpredictable lab experiment or simply the happy accidents in the confines of a short online video offering? The answer is is that you can’t. There is no way to capture the magic of what happens in a classroom. But as educators are exploring creative alternatives to how to offer content, they are creating new norms in how we interact with this online world and with it, new magic and happy accidents are discovered.

We are all skeptical when we hear the word “free”. Could it really be? What’s the catch? In the online world, there are many catches, loopholes and scams. We all feel vulnerable when it comes to online identity and exposure. In the case of MOOCs, the course information in the form of lectures, quizzes, readings (some books are required for purchase) is actually free of cost (not time, perhaps the next commodity frontier)…for the student. The course is not free for the institutions who produce it. Additional institutional resources and funding is required to develop and design a comprehensive course offering, digging into the pockets of schools whose wallets may already be tapped.

Furthermore, we must also consider the impact on the institutions that offer the courses which students may now take through a MOOC. This may not decrease the student population (and tuition) at private higher-educational universities per say but public community colleges may see a drastic dip in enrollment in courses that are similar to those offered online for free. There are still many issues around accreditation that need to be addressed but once they are, the infrastructure of community colleges may be at risk. For example, if you are a single mom of two taking nursing classes online, are you more likely to take a basic 101 course online for free or for a price?

The Evolving Landscape
The possibilities and obstacles raised above are mostly hypothetical because of MOOCs’ unpredictable nature in this their infantile moments. Some in education welcome and embrace the potential that MOOCs offer and relish the future they could bring to our online learning environments. Others are skeptical and fearful as to what this new movement’s effect could be. The impact on the quality of education and the institutions who provide it is completely unknown in this moment and that is scary. I think both sides’ perspectives are right on. However, because we are at a “we do know what we don’t know” crossroads, the best (and really only) thing to do is jump in feet first and hope there is a Swimming 101 MOOC out there for us to take.


Samantha Calamari is a video producer, curriculum/course designer, and DJ. She currently works at Brown University in Providence, RI as an Instructional Technologists and is assisting in the development of Brown’s first MOOCs.