MOOCs are old and shopworn

This is from a Connected Planet article in 1997:

Ah, spring – the time of year when students decide to skip classes en masse and sit outside enjoying the sun and fresh air. For the students of the University of Phoenix Online Campus, however, that ritual loses something in the translation: To duck their professors, all they have to do is turn off their PCs and unhook their modems.

But it’s a tradeoff that they’re willing to make in order to earn their undergraduate and graduate degrees on a part-time basis from the comfort of their own homes. The University of Phoenix opened its doors to its first 12 on-line students in 1989, and it now boasts 2500 students, 250 faculty members and eight degree program. …

However, one education industry analyst wonders how much credibility an on-line degree really has in the marketplace. “I would imagine there would be a bias against on-line degrees of any kind,” said Rick Hesel, principal at Art & Science Group. “Face-to-face contact with the faculty is considered to be a mark of quality, and because this program doesn’t have that, I think both employers and prospective students would be wary.”

But that could change soon, as the big names in education get into the on-line arena, Hesel said.

“Once you see Harvard or other prestigious MBA programs getting into it, all bets are off,” he said.

And Hesel believes that will be sooner rather than later.

Contrast that with the talk of a “MOOC Revolution” in (for instance) this 2103 Tom Friedman article. Friedman, like many others, presumes that MOOCs (massive open online courses) are very new, rapidly spreading, highly promising, originating in institutions like Stanford and Harvard with distinguished educators like Michael Sandel, and motivated by the goals of better and more accessible education. But, as Aaron Bady argues in Liberal Education, even the word “MOOC” is now almost six years old, and the basic practice dates to 1989. Even then, students were assigned to online discussion groups and showed videos of lectures. MOOCs did not originate at luminous, global intellectual powerhouses but at the University of Phoenix, which is now rapidly shrinking and faces widespread criticism for achieving a loan default rate higher than its graduation rate. Dispersion of the MOOC model has been slow and halting due to poor reputation and questionable impact. The prediction that “Harvard and other prestigious MBA programs” would soon adopt MOOCs turned out to be 16 years premature.

As Bady argues, there is no reason to rush to adopt MOOCs. We are not going through a “MOOC revolution.” Rather, we have extensive experience and it is not encouraging. To be sure, online courses have educational potential; a CIRCLE paper outlines some advantages. But we must avoid the hype. If college administrators were asked whether they wanted to implement the University of Phoenix’s 1989 model instead of Stanford’s latest MOOC, I doubt they would feel as excited.

(I take this overall argument from Bady, but I found the 1997 article quoted above.)

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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