Will MOOCs save us?

Those who’ve been reading this series will recall that I didn’t think much of the “Baumol cost disease” explanation for why college costs are going up, The Washington Post reports.

That’s the theory that says that because you can’t get more productive at standing in front of a class and lecturing, to compete with other sectors where productivity is growing, higher education institutions are going to have to pay faculty ever-higher wages.

I don’t think there’s much evidence that that’s happening. But there’s a kernel of truth there. The way we teach hasn’t really changed in millenia. The best way to reduce college costs going forward would be to figure out a way to get better at making students smarter.

A growing movement is trying to do just that. By now, you’ve probably heard of Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs for short. Those are courses offered online, often for free, without admissions requirements or enrollment limits.

Anyone who wants to can watch the videos and do the assignments. Some MOOC providers, such as Coursera, provide course-completers with a certificate. Five of its courses — offered through Duke University, UC Irvine and the University of Pennsylvania — have been recommended by the American Council of Education for course credit at its 1,800 member institutions.

This isn’t a wholly new trend. MIT’s OpenCourseWare has been around since 2002, offering online lectures and course assignments. UC Berkeley and Yale followed suit in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Academic Earth launched in 2009 as a way to collate lectures from Berkeley, MIT, Yale and other schools.

But MOOCs have taken off in recent years, with Stanford professors launching Coursera and its competitor Udacity, and Harvard and MIT banding together to create edX, all of which make courses at elite universities available to anyone for free. … If MOOCs are as good at imparting knowledge as brick and mortar institutions, that would be a game-changer for higher ed costs.

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