Online Courses Reaching Turning Point, May Scare Colleges

It has been said that colleges around the country should be concerned; the quality of online courses is greatly improving and is catching up to traditional classes faster than expected. Depending on whom you might talk to, MOOCs will upend and democratize higher education; other people claim that they are poor approximations of lectures that not even begin to equal what is present in the classroom. The director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation put these concepts to the test, spending four months taking two MOOCs from start to finish.

A Coursera Introduction to Philosophy class was everything that most critics dislike. It was too brief and didn't have any of the problem sets that were necessary for learning. There were no essays, tests, or any other format of teaching to ensure that the students were able to understand and retain the information that they were being taught. This class was essentially the example of all of the reasons why many people feel that they can't take MOOCs seriously within the world of education. It was not able to meet up to the standards that were provided by traditional classes and coursework.

A second class that was provided by MIT and was an introductory biology course hosted by edX was completely different. After taking this course, the director admitted that while not every course can transition online for less money and at a higher level of quality than what most students would be able to experience, the amount that can is a lot more than many people are willing to acknowledge. The course was able to respond to the biggest criticisms of the skeptics. In fact, the course was the exact same course that MIT provides to freshmen and taught by Eric Lander, who led the Human Genome Project and chairs President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

The lectures are all the same but they are videotaped a month ahead. There are "deep dive" videos with grad students and TAs handling difficult topics. The notion that students miss out by not being able to be in the classroom is completely wrong. The director even took a trip out to MIT for one of the live lectures to make a comparison. He said that based on what he saw, the live and taped lectures really aren't the same because the live lectures were actually worse. Being able to pause the video and look at the diagrams and other ideas made the educational experience more beneficial. It was also more helpful to know that the information could be reviewed over and over again in HD format on the individual's own time instead of having to deal with the schedule of lecture halls and other class requirements. For those who claim that they missed out on the interaction with the instructor, the director posed a question: how many students actually take full advantage of that type of option to begin with?

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