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The Future of Free Online Courses: New Research From MIT And Harvard

Student Raul Ramos goes through his online homework during a session of a massive open online class, or MOOC, in Madrid, Spain.

Remember the MOOC?

Just a few years ago, the Massive Open Online Course was expected to reinvent higher education. Millions of people were signing up to watch web-based, video lectures from the world's great universities. Some were completing real assignments, earning certificates, and forming virtual study groups — all for free.

Surely the traditional college degree would instantly collapse.

Today, much of that hype has subsided (though best-selling authors and newspaper columnists are still making the case that "the end of college" is nigh). And new research on 1.7 million MOOC participants offers a more nuanced view of just what these courses are and could become.

One of the biggest MOOC platforms, edX, is run jointly as a nonprofit by Harvard and MIT. And researchers at both schools have been poring over the data from everyone who participated in 68 courses over more than two years. That's 10 million participant-hours. Here's what they found.

Lots Of Teachers

In one survey of a subset of users, 39 percent identified as current or former teachers, and one in five had taught the subject they were studying. This finding supports the general profile of MOOCsters as being already well-educated.

"Educators are curious about new forms of learning, and they are curious to learn from other instructors," observes Justin Reich, a Harvard-based author of the paper. "Certainly, many folks at Harvard and MIT are excited by the idea that one of the ways MOOCs could make a positive impact on education is by being a resource for educators."

A Potential Lifeline For Certain Countries

The study found extreme overrepresentation among citizens of Greece and Spain — not only taking courses but also paying for certification. During the period under study, Greek universities were forced to suspend operations due to austerity measures, and budget cuts in Spain led to national student protests. As a result, did students look online for an education alternative? It's a question for future research, the authors agree.

Linear, Not Exponential Growth

The first MOOCs had over 100,000 registrants each. Predictions were made (and millions of dollars invested) based on the idea that participation would be in the hundreds of millions by now. Actual interest is more modest.

So what happens now — given MOOCs have fallen far short of those early, lofty expectations?

"If we're not going to get to a billion MOOC learners in the next few years (and certainly not a billion active ones), then that realization offers a moment to reflect on what the best possible future for MOOCs might be," says Reich.

Some colleges are looking to expand on-campus applications of MOOCs. Reich points out that 83 percent of MIT undergrads are taking a class that uses MITx resources in some way.

Paid certificates for these online courses are another potential answer, though Reich says they're likely to be most useful in a minority of fast-changing, highly technical fields.

Andrew Ho, a lead author of the paper at Harvard, thinks the value of certificates will increase "but ultimately be limited by the quality of assessments and assessment security, both areas where greater investment is necessary." Translation: Proving that you and no one else completed that physics problem set costs money.

The simplest answer to "What happens now?" is this: Despite lingering doubts about the power and profitability of MOOCs, companies and universities are still spending significant resources to create and support them for millions of people, in nearly every country, for free. It's an investment, for now, on faith.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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