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Obama advisers: MOOCs will transform education ‘at all levels’


A group of scientists and engineers who advise President Obama on national technology policy wrote in a Dec. 18 report that massive open online courses (MOOCs) could prove revolutionary for a higher education system in need of change.

Obama's education policies haven't always been popular among Democrats.
Obama’s education policies haven’t always been popular among Democrats.

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), created by the Obama administration in 2009, wrote in an open letter that MOOCs could reduce the rising cost of education while making college degrees more accessible and streamlining the way college courses are taught.

The council acknowledged major setbacks for MOOCs — like the one at San Jose State University — but said those hiccups were to be expected with any emerging technology.

“Although the new technologies introduced by MOOCs are still in their infancy, and many questions and challenges remain, we believe that they hold the possibility of transforming education at all levels by providing better metrics for educational outcomes, and better alignment of incentives for innovation in pedagogy,” the council wrote in its letter.

MOOCs, the council wrote, would help personalize education with real time metrics that would show which concepts are proving difficult for students, bringing a “truly adaptive learning platform” to higher education.

MOOCs will fail to reach their full revolutionary potential if the experimental platforms don’t “deploy new techniques of big data analysis to provide rapid feedback to teachers and learners,” the president’s advisers wrote.

“The data might also permit advances in our understanding of learning differences, including those associated with gender, ethnicity, and economic status, among many other subjects,” the report said.

See page 2 for what President Obama might approach the economic development of MOOCs…

Obama’s technology advisers implored the president to take a decidedly hands-off approach in the development of MOOCs. Market forces should be left to determine innovation in the MOOC space, the advisory group wrote, without any sort of federal subsidizing of certain MOOC platforms or experimental online education approaches.

“It would also be premature to impose standards and regulations that might impair the power of competitive market forces to motivate innovation,” the advisers wrote. ” The Federal Government can best encourage innovation in this critical sector by letting the market work.”

Many in higher education, including Excelsior College President John Ebersole, have preached caution in the adoption of MOOCs, wary of the courses’ potential for massive — and positive — change.

“It appears the assumption has been made that if the instruction originates with a superstar faculty presenter from a prestigious institution, then of course learning results,” Ebersole said, adding that many “indicators suggest MOOC offerings today are unique forms of entertainment rather than serious vehicles for the advancement of learning.”

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