It’s time to redirect the conversation about MOOCs

So many exciting things are happening in higher education these days, it could make a guy’s hair fall out. Most of the headlines  and conversation have been about “massive” education and the stories may have left some people confused, or even a little worried.

There’s a disconnect with many MOOC students in higher ed.

Let’s look past the hype—and the hyperbole—and focus on the central question we should ask about any educational innovation: Are MOOCs about a better educational experience for students?

Or are they about efficiency and cost savings? Taken independently either is good and achieving both is better. But if the former is sacrificed for the latter, then I see long term systemic problems for higher education.

Massive has had a place in higher education for quite some time. It would be hard to argue that a large lecture hall of 300, 400, 500+ students is any different than a MOOC.

In fact, the MOOC might be a better experience for students given the technologies used to provide feedback and connection. But a degree program comprised of MOOCs-a MOOP? This requires a bit more thought.

Not all online education is “massive”

As part of a university system that has delivered online courses, programs and degrees for a very long time, I am troubled by what appears to be the inseparable link between online education and massive online education–that is, that “massive” is the way to deliver online programs. Most online degree programs are not MOOP(rograms)s.

Like WSU’s Global Campus, they incorporate academic counseling to determine if the program of study is compatible with the student’s ability to succeed. They offer robust student support services to break down the isolation that often accompanies study at a distance.

They require close student to student interaction through peer based assignments to build a sense of community.

But most importantly, they need an engaged faculty inside and outside the classroom to mentor, guide, counsel and befriend students. They’re not massive—our average course size is 27 students per course section.

But we are learning from the “massive” experiment

While WSU doesn’t do massive courses, there are some lessons to be gleaned from other traditional universities testing the waters. The Georgia Institute of Technology announced (in partnership with Udacity and a 2 million dollar grant from AT&T) an online M.S. in Computer Science degree for under  $7,000.

The on-campus equivalent costs between $25,000 and $45,000. The University of Wisconsin announced an online competency-based undergraduate program that uses subscriptions rather than tuition, and allows students to complete as many competencies as they can in a three-month period.

The subscription is $2,250 per three-month term.

Is this revolutionary? Perhaps. Will it upend traditional education, just like, for example, the advent of radio put a slow down on live concerts? Could be. But fanfare doesn’t always translate into longevity.

For example, Colorado State University—Global Campus made national headlines last year when it announced it would accept credit for MOOCs.

Instead of paying the $1,050 CSU tuition, students could pay an $89 assessment fee and receive credit if they passed a proctored exam. As of July 2013, not one student had signed up—this fact seems to be heralded with a kazoo, rather than trumpets.

In May, the California higher education system was rocked when proposed legislation would require universities to accept credit for MOOCs. A couple of months later, the plan was tabled.

The student experience is often forgotten in MOOCs

This disconnect between publicity and reality (queue Secondlife) is real and, with the “massive” hype, can be traced to such factors as funding considerations—massive means more students connected to fewer faculty, then, Kaboom, cost savings. But this conversation is often void of the most important element: The student experience.

MOOCs vary widely, but they usually involve a lecture, automated grading, and maybe a peer network to answer questions. The faculty member is often an unreachable entity who helps create the course, then steps away from the actual learning process.

New York Times columnist A.J. Jacobs completed 11 MOOCs, and describes them as having “the least accessible teachers in history.”

If MOOCs are an instructional innovation, then why not bring this innovation back to our campus.

We might repurpose Martin Stadium for classroom use, put a prof at the 50 yard line and well. Or if it is not, let’s focus our discussion on the student experience, creating a student centered, faculty connected undergraduate learning experience.

Put bluntly, if the sole purpose of the university professor is to “act out” canned materials (live or archived) then yes, MOOCs are an instructional innovation.

The author is the vice president of Washington State University. This post originally appeared on WCET Frontiers.