Will MOOCs kill university degrees?

Distance education is nothing new, but these days it is hard to escape hyperventilation about its latest incarnation: MOOCs, or “massive open online courses,” The Economist reports.

Universities had been tinkering with open-access learning for a number of years, but towards the end of 2011 two senior lecturers at Stanford University offered an online course in artificial intelligence. Anyone who completed the course received a certificate of recognition.

An astonishing 160,000 students from all corners of the planet signed up, and 23,000 of them completed the course. Within a year there were two companies and one non-profit offering MOOCs in association with a range of leading universities. This month the journal MOOC Forum published its first issue. An editorial explains that there are over 500 MOOCs being offered by more than 100 well known, and accredited, university brands.

All are offered without charge. The combination of quality courses offered by brand-name universities, good online learning technology and the wide availability of broadband links has allowed distance learning to come of age. But will MOOCs kill university degrees?Mostly MOOCs are not just online video lectures that one downloads on a whim.

Generally one must register for a course, wait some time for it to start, and then keep up with its demands on a weekly basis, along with thousands of other students.

For example, the MOOC software may pause at various intervals throughout the lecture to ask questions which need to be answered correctly to continue watching. For the more committed, MOOCs involve homework, online discussions and testing. Concerns over high drop-out rates are overblown. Most people (including your correspondent) enroll for these free courses for enjoyment, enlightenment or curiosity and are not committed to finishing them or gaining a certificate.

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