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Pondering the future of MOOCs: What will they ultimately achieve?

Before massive open online courses can truly change the higher-education paradigm, several challenges await

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In a field known for glacial change, MOOCs have landed like a meteorite in higher education.

In 15 years of teaching, University of Pennsylvania classicist Peter Struck has guided perhaps a few hundred students annually in his classes on Greek and Roman mythology through the works of Homer, Sophocles, Aeschylus, and others—”the oldest strands of our cultural DNA.”

But if you gathered all of those tuition-paying, in-person students together, the group would pale in size compared with the 54,000 from around the world who, this fall alone, are taking his class online for free—a “Massive Open Online Course,” or MOOC, offered through a company called Coursera.

Reaching that broader audience of eager learners—seeing students in Brazil and Thailand wrestle online with texts dating back millennia—is thrilling. But he’s not prepared to say they’re getting the same educational experience.

“Where you have a back-and-forth, interrogating each other ideas, finding shades of gray in each other’s ideas, I don’t know how much of that you can do in a MOOC,” he said. “I can measure some things students are getting out of this course, but it’s nowhere near what I can do even when I teach 300 here at Penn.”

A year ago, hardly anybody knew the term MOOC. But the internet-based courses offered by elite universities through Coursera, by a consortium led by Harvard and MIT called edX, and by others, are proving wildly popular, with some classes attracting hundreds of thousands of students. In a field known for glacial change, MOOCs have landed like a meteorite in higher education, and universities are racing for a piece of the action.

The question now is what MOOCs ultimately will achieve. Will they simply expand access to good instruction (no small thing)? Or will they truly transform higher education, at last shaking up an enterprise that’s seemed incapable of improving productivity, thus dooming itself to ever-rising prices?

Much of the answer depends on the concept at the center of a string of recent MOOC announcements: course credit.

Credit’s the coin of the realm in higher education, the difference between knowing something and the world recognizing that you do. Without it, students will get a little bit smarter. With it, they’ll get smarter—and enjoy faster and cheaper routes to degrees and the careers that follow.

Students are telling the MOOC developers they want credit opportunities, and with a push from funders like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the MOOCs are trying to figure out how to get it to them.

“Initially, I said it’d be three years” before MOOCs began confronting the credit issue, said MIT’s Anant Agarwal, president of edX, which launched only last May and has 420,000 students signed up this fall (Coursera is approaching 2 million). “It’s been months.”

But making MOOC courses credit-worthy brings challenges much harder than producing even the best online lectures, from entering a state-by-state regulatory thicket to assessment. How do you grade 100,000 essays? How do you make sure students in a coffee shop in Kazakhstan aren’t cheating on quizzes?

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