Can MOOCs improve higher ed?

General consensus seems to be that American higher education needs improvement. This article reports that on average, US college students spend only 12-14 hours studying per week, which is 50% less than they spent a few decades ago, and that 45% of undergrads exhibited no improvements on the standardized test used for their assessment, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, after two years of college. [Note: this test does not account for potential gains in subject-specific skills, but instead focuses on reading and writing skills]. Meanwhile, the cost of a traditional 4-year university continues to climb rapidly.

Enter MOOCs: Massive open online courses through which many leading universities are making courses available to the 1,000,000+ people who have  signed up to date.

MOOC creators are quick to sing its praises, Nicholas Carr points out in his article, “The Crisis in Higher Education.” For one, the courses make education more accessible, most notably to people who are geographically isolated and to others who want to study while holding careers. They also allow students to go at their own pace, and often include periodic checkpoints so students don’t fall behind. MOOCs adapt to students’ responses, repeating and elaborating on topics when necessary, and moving ahead when students are ready. The future will likely include programs that monitor how students interact with the teaching system and provide materials tailored to students’ individual learning styles.

However, MOOCs aren’t necessarily the educational saviors that their creators suggest. For one, they have very high dropout rates: Carr reports that of the more than 155,000 people who signed up for a MIT course on electronic circuits, only 23,000 even finished the first problem set, and only 7,000 (~5%) finished the course. The rate reflects the difficulty that MOOCs face in keeping their students engaged, a problem that could actually decrease the number of Americans completing college if the online courses were integrated into their curricula.

Another difficulty is the range of topics that MOOCs can adequately teach. Currently, most are math and computer science based (probably because they are created by computer science professors…), but how might they transfer liberal arts, more exploratory topics, into an online medium? How could they compensate for the value of social learning, learning that results from the unique combination of students and professors in a real-time physical classroom?

Undoubtedly, there are pros and cons to MOOCs, but which outweighs the other? Are they a solution to America’s troubled higher education system, or might they further derail it?