MOOCs: Widening or narrowing the education gap

Will MOOCs help to close the gap on affordability and availability of higher education for the masses, or will it actually result in greater stratification between the elite and everyone else?

In a recent survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, over 100 university instructors currently teaching MOOCs responded to questions geared toward assessing the potential impact of MOOCs, both on faculty and on higher education.  Those responses provided some new insight into what the future may hold.  Most of those who responded claimed to have invested at least 100 hours in the preparation and production of online course, and also admitted that other aspects of their teaching suffered as a result of the time invested.  There is still quite a lot of controversy and question regarding college credit for MOOCs (only 28% of respondents felt that credit should be given by their institution for successful completion of the MOOC they taught).  The American Council on Education (ACE) has already endorsed five MOOCs from Coursera for credit, and it is currently reviewing three more from Udacity.  [Incidentally – If Senate Bill 520 is passed in CA, the dialogue may get a lot more interesting.  The bill would effectively require state colleges and universities to accept credit for MOOCs in an attempt to increase availability of classes and drive down costs.]  Those instructors who felt that students should receive credit for online courses included faculty members at the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Duke, and Stanford, whose MOOCs focus on math, science, and engineering. The majority of those who responded also felt strongly that, “MOOCs will drive down the cost of earning a degree from their home institutions, and an overwhelming majority believe that the free online courses will make college less expensive in general.”

While the findings from the survey above appear to lean toward the case for narrowing the education gap, there is also a growing sentiment that the opposite may be true.  In 2012, when Sebastian Thrun made the decisive move from Stanford to his start-up, Udacity, the Chronicle published an article that cast MOOCs as the harbinger of greater class division between students who can afford to attend elite universities, and the rest of the masses who cannot.  According to the author, Greg Graham, “although the move toward online education is being advanced by some of the nation’s most elite universities, in the end it will be the lower half of the student population that will be forced out of the traditional classroom, widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”  Two studies conducted by the Columbia University’s Community College Research Center (CCRC) reported findings that indicate potential for widening achievement gaps in educational performance between demographic groups.  The second, and more recent, of the two studies found that all types of students suffered a decrease in performance when comparing online courses to face-to-face courses, but this appeared especially true for students with lower demographic profiles.  The validity of the findings prompts two questions: 1) how can we ensure that the quality of online courses is equal to that of face-to-face instruction; and 2) what, if anything, can be done to improve student performance for those students who may be challenged regardless of class format (if a student is already and under-performer in a face-to-face setting, an online setting isn’t likely to improve the outcome…).  It may be a pre-determined outcome that students who are strong, self-motivated learners, and who already know how to navigate online technologies and tools, stand the greatest chance of benefitting from MOOCs.

In a largely closed-door meeting that took place earlier this month, Harvard, Princeton, and MIT gathered with MOOC founders and executives to discuss some of these very issues. The elite institutions made it clear that they intend for MOOCs to enhance, not replace, residential learning.  Interestingly, instructors at these institutions said that attempts to integrate participation between students taking MOOC versions of classes with students taking face-to-face versions of classes resulted in resistance from the residential learners. Complaints from in-class students were related to their desire to receive “more” for their experience since they were paying.  During the meeting, the former President of Princeton, William Bowen, made what appeared to be an incredibly elitist statement regarding the use of MOOCs at the nation’s top universities, “I would humbly suggest that the kinds of assessment and standards and all the rest that I’m sure are appropriate at MIT and Harvard and so forth, have very little relevance for the large parts of American higher education, particularly in the state systems, that are under genuine siege.”  While I hope that the statement was somehow taken out of context, this kind of statement certainly does nothing to address broader issues regarding quality and availability in higher education.

Notwithstanding the challenges that lie ahead in ensuring quality assurance, assessing MOOCs for credit, and engaging the wider audience of students and potential students across all demographic sectors, I tend to believe that MOOCs are a positive and significant addition to higher education.  I also think they will only get better with time as new tools are developed to help instructors determine what materials are most used in online courses, and how students are learning (Coursera and Udacity are developing new diagnostic tools at a rapid pace).  Whether or not MOOCs widen or narrow the education gap or the cost of higher education, is largely left in the hands of college and university administrators and the faculty who prepare and teach the courses.  Careful consideration and design is warranted from both.  I believe that there is enough room on the table, and enough potential in the offering, that the institution and the student can both benefit while realizing a potential decrease in the average cost of earning a degree.  I don’t believe that quality needs to be sacrificed in the process.  On the contrary, I think it will increase – but only through use of sound judgement and decision making on the part of faculty and their students.  I see tremendous opportunity, but as with all things, the outcome is what we choose to make of it.



Leave a Reply