Course Correction 

Opinion: Massive, open, online classes seem certain to shake traditional institutions of higher learning to their foundations.

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I’m not sure where I first heard about massive, open online courses, better known as MOOCs. Public radio would be a safe bet. Wherever it was, as a former public school teacher and administrator, I was intrigued.

I was especially interested because these online classes are generating controversy. College-level courses? Taught by world-class scholars? At virtually no cost? That’s what’s called an existential threat to our higher-education system.

Out of curiosity, I enrolled in a 10-week course, “Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations.” It was offered by the University of British Columbia through Coursera, the largest of three consortia offering the online courses.

I was impressed from the outset. I’ve long been a fan of the Teaching Company’s Great Courses, but this was something more. In addition to short, well-focused lectures, my course provided extensive readings, interactive learning activities, short, weekly quizzes, and wide-open discussion threads that permitted students to pursue questions of interest in greater depth.

All online. All free.

For those who wanted a certificate of completion, there were two assigned papers and a final exam. The cost was $39.

Thirty-nine dollars.

The professors were outstanding. Sara Harris, a crisp, no-nonsense oceanographer and expert on climate modeling, taught the first half of the course, focusing on the scientific evidence for climate change. Sarah Burch, a youthful, engaging expert on sustainability and contributor to the most recent report of the International Panel on Climate Change — the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations body studying climate change — followed up with an exploration of public policy options.

Thousands of students from several dozen countries on six continents signed up, and around 1,900 of us audited the course to the end. Another 750 earned the certificate.

Because MOOCs are new and free, many people sign up out of curiosity without feeling committed to “stay the course.” But even with a high drop rate, more than 2,600 of us completed the course. Which made it, by far, the biggest course I’ve ever taken.

Coursera must have been pleased. It’s offering a second session, beginning Sept. 30.

Of course, the real test lies in the learning. I learned as much as I’ve learned from most of the undergraduate and graduate courses I’ve taken through the years.

I also learned the potential of these courses to change the way we deliver — and pay for — higher education.

At a time when individuals, families and governments are groaning under the weight of ever-mounting college costs, it would be remarkable if such courses didn’t quickly find a valued place within the educational marketplace.

So far, the three consortia have recruited outstanding teachers from many of the world’s top universities. Coursera, which started at Stanford, offers courses from, among others, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Oxford.

Colleges in Virginia aren’t blind to what is going on. Beginning Oct. 21, the University of Virginia will offer a four-week course called The Kennedy Half Century and taught by renowned professor Larry Sabato will teach it.

Last week, Virginia Commonwealth University announced plans to develop MOOCs independent of the three consortia.

While most MOOCs aren’t yet accorded college credit, that’s beginning to change. In February the American Council on Education announced that five such offerings — two math courses from University of California at Irvine, two biology courses from Duke and a calculus course from the University of Pennsylvania — qualified for college credit.

The council’s decision is a foot in the door. It seems inevitable that demand will grow for more efficient systems of delivering content, especially given today’s competitive economy and the soaring costs of traditional education.

That, in turn, will create a market for sophisticated evaluation technologies to assess new knowledge, new skills and growth in both critical and creative thinking — gains not measurable by traditional fill-in-the-bubble tests.

As these new assessments come online, they will, in turn, increase the likelihood that employers and grad schools will recognize actual learning — rather than paper transcripts — as the true measure of an applicant’s qualifications.

In time, the long-established monopoly of colleges and universities as issuers of credentials almost certainly will crumble. Alternative pathways to education will gain viability.

Even state licensing bureaucracies, which supervise costly and burdensome continuing education and recertification programs, will have to get on board.

Which is all a way of saying that computer classes seem certain to shake traditional institutions of higher learning to their foundations.

When world-class teachers, from world-class universities, are available at little or no cost, it will prove increasingly difficult to justify charging tens of thousands of dollars per student, per year for instruction that is often mediocre — and that, in the end, offers no proof of actual learning.

Not every college or university will adjust to this changing reality. Those that adapt likely will choose to combine new technology with a very old tradition.

At England’s Oxford and Cambridge universities, the prevailing model of undergraduate education long has involved face-to-face meetings between one scholar and one, two or three students. No method of teaching is remotely as effective as this intimate approach. Until now, this labor-intensive model has been ill-suited to American universities, committed as they are to educating enormous numbers of young people.

MOOCs with their ability to deliver high-quality instruction to virtually unlimited numbers of students, could change this. For example, The University of Virginia’s College of Arts and Sciences is actively exploring ways of using computer classes to eliminate large lecture classes, freeing professors to work with smaller groups of students.

This could be the wave of the future.

The 21st-century university could emerge as a marriage of the high-tech and the traditional — on a model far more cost-effective than today’s university.

’Rick Gray is a former high-school history teacher. He writes a column for the Village News in Chester and blogs at Gray’s Gazette and the Shadow Governor.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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