The world of online education got a major boost last week when Coursera, the two-year-old startup that provides open courses online, named a former Yale University President as its new chief executive.
Online learning enthusiasts were quick to perceive Richard Levin’s arrival at Coursera as evidence that massive open online courses – or MOOCs – are being embraced by leaders of traditional learning as the future of higher education.
One critic that did not join in the excitement was University of California president Janet Napolitano. Online learning, she said, was “a tool for the tool box, but it’s harder than it looks and if you do it right, it doesn’t save all that much money.”
The excitement that followed Levin’s venture into Coursera, and Napolitano’s cool reception to online learning, in a way mirrors the ongoing debate over online education, which provokes as much optimism as it generates skepticism.
Education programs of various kinds continue to pop up on the Web, driven in part by soaring college tuition fees that have risen more than 500 percent in the last two decades.
Many Ivy League schools have launched their own online programs, while Coursera and others have raised millions from investors to provide free courses mostly from prestigious universities.
Coursera, which launched in 2012, has since signed up more than 5.2 million students, according to the company’s website.
Jonathan Haber, who runs the website degreeoffreedom.org, spent most of 2013 on a year-long project to take selected MOOCs that match the required courses for a four-year liberal arts degree.
He said some of the courses are designed to be identical to their non-online version and require the same amount of lecture attendance, reading assignments, writing papers, and taking exams. Others are designed to be easier, he said.
But can you take all the courses required for a degree and obtain the same kind of recognition as a college graduate?
Not yet, Haber said. MOOC students receive a certificate when they complete a course, and there are steps they can take to get some college credit for them, although they will be asked to jump through many hoops to get those credits, he said.
“I think it is very early for MOOCs to be an alternative to a degree,” he said.
Haber said, however, that MOOCs have a lot to contribute.
The MOOCs from Coursera and other schools usually have better quality videos than many other online education institutions, he said. MOOCs also experiment with new ways of teaching and are much more innovative than other online education programs, he said.
“There is a lot of neat stuff happening in MOOCs, and I think they have raised the bar on online education because of that,” he said.
Frank Greenagel, managing director of Guided Learning Systems, a consulting company that designs courses for computer mediated learning, said he hopes to see more of such innovation in online education.
While most of the excitement over online education has focused on the mere fact that lectures are being available online through video, there is not much emphasis being given to improving instructional design, he said.
Many online courses are not interactive and simply require the student to watch a video of a lecture, although the technology exists to create discussion not only between teacher and student but also among students, he said.
Although different disciplines often require different forms of teaching, the online courses now available tend to follow the same model across the board, he said.
“I believe in the technology very strongly,” he said. “But the technology has to come after a good understanding of how people learn a particular subject.”
Greenagel said graduates of online courses certainly do not get the same recognition as graduates of traditional education, and that will change over time if providers of online education can show that they can teach skills that employers want.
He said that several years ago, he took part in a program in which Toshiba taught its telephone linesmen how to install digital TV via an online course. Before that, technicians were flown to California for a three-week course on how to install the technology, he said.
The online course eliminated the need for flying in the technicians and saved the company a lot of money, he said.
“And the people we taught went out and did the installations,” he said.
Tony Bates, president and CEO of Tony Bates Associates, an e-learning consultancy and training company in Vancouver, Canada, said he believes online education will eventually be fully integrated into post-secondary education within the next decade.
Rather than completely replacing traditional education, it will likely be available in a hybrid or blended format that will allow students to choose between taking courses online and physically going to campus.
Will online education bring down the cost of college education?
Not by much, according to Bates. He said some aspects of learning can be easily put online while others can’t because they require discussion, expert guidance, and high-quality feedback.
He said most learners are likely to want and need help from instructors when learning, which is the expensive part of education.
“So perhaps the overall cost of higher education will come down a little, but not a great deal if you want well educated graduates,” he said.