The Digital Campus

The Digital Campus

MOOCs: Occupy Higher Ed?


Yes, you read right: MOOCs are all the rage lately.

As trend scouters, our job at swissnex demands we keep up with latest trends in science, education, art, and innovation coming out of the Bay Area, the U.S. as well as Switzerland. In this post, I share with you one of the hottest topics in education and technology today: Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs.

Online learning has been around for some time now. One could argue whether it has delivered as expected.  What has changed is that courses nowadays are offered online to anyone with access to the internet–outside of the walled garden of universities. All you need is a computer, willingness to learn, and discipline to complete the course. However, the most important factor that has put MOOCs under the media spotlight is that they represent an alternative to the rising cost of higher education (at least in the U.S.) and the increasing debt that students acquire to gain access to higher education. The statistics are staggering:

The average student debt for new graduates rose 24% after inflation from 2000-2010 to $16,932, according to the liberal Progressive Policy Institute. The average for all borrowers is $23,300 , the New York Federal Reserve says.  – Investors Business Daily, May 9, 2012

Education at a fraction of the cost?

In the Fall of 2011, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun offered his Artificial Intelligence course to anyone with a web connection, reaching 160,000 students from all over the world. Lectures and assignments were posted and graded online each week. Midterms and finals had strict deadlines. Students who completed the course were awarded an official Statement of Accomplishment.

The results were staggering when it came to performance: non-Stanford students did as well as Stanford students. In addition, Stanford students that could actually attend the class in person, instead chose to attend the class online. In fact, attending the course online improved their performance, according to Sebastian Thrun. The chance that technology offered to take quizzes, get automatic feedback, and get to interact with other students outside of campus is not only compelling to students but also beneficial.

Occupy higher ed?

After this successful trial, Sebastian Thrun left Stanford and founded Udacity.  I visited Udacity in early May 2012. Housed in a small office building on El Camino Real in Palo Alto, a handful of video editors and designers edit courses in a typical early start up setting: one main common workspace, a recording studio, and one conference room.

In conversation with David Stavens, co-founder of Udacity, the energy and thrill of breaking new ground is palpable. Humbly, he admits that there are still more questions than answers but that at Udacity they are convinced that the revolution has just started. Questions about what students really want are still to be answered and defined. However, the demand is clear.

David shares they simply fly out a professor to Palo Alto (they have 10 on staff), he/she records the entire course, which is then edited by Udacity staff. Sounds simple, right? I was unable to get a clear idea of cost but he made it clear it was just a handful of dollars per student. Automation is clearly a huge advantage when it comes to online education. Naturally, subjects such as computer science lend themselves to automated grading. Grading an English essay would be a different story. However, there is a human element involved:  Udacity counts with round the world volunteers that act as teaching assistants. This enables Udacity to offer 24/7 support to students.

For the immediate future, Udacity is focusing on making available 30-40 computers courses online and developing a certification program to recommend successful students to talent hungry companies in Silicon Valley. If all works as planned, having a Udacity diploma could be as prestigious as having an Ivy League degree. Specially if it opens the doors to a job at Google, Amazon, or LinkedIn. For more on the business model read this NYT article written by San Francisco based reporter, John Markoff. Also, check out Udacity on Facebook.

Another important player is Coursera, also started by Stanford professors. This one is well backed by important venture capital firms  (Kleiner Perkins) and, unlike Udacity, it partners with top universities that provide the courses (Princeton, UC Berkeley, University of Pennsylvannia, etc.) Other ventures include Minerva and Udemy. And of course, there’s Khan Academy (aimed at a younger demographic), which has made huge headlines for its simple and paced approach to learning for younger students.

Keeping up with the new

These developments have not gone unnoticed by the higher education community. Most recently, MIT and Harvard’s Distance Learning joined forces to launch edX, which will be takes over MIT’s initial MITx. Harvard and MIT’s edX is a not for profit venture that will provide Harvard and MIT courses for free to anyone with an internet connection.  Its most salient feature is that is an open source platform, which should allow for constant improvement.

Universities are trying to figure out how to leverage the apparent effectiveness of online material for learning but are grappling with copyright issues and ultimately what it means to offer these courses online vs. the cost of actually attending the university. Questions include:

  • Will online courses replace traditional course offerings?
  • Will budget conscious schools adopt this new style to save costs and offer more accessible education to its students?
  • Is this a serious way of providing education?
  • Will it online courses replace basic introductory courses, which most professors delegate to teaching assistants anyway?
  • Will MOOCs make more sense for graduate programs or executive programs for working professionals?
  • Could this mean that eventually, all computer science student will be taking the exact same course?
  • Will MOOCs enable students from all over the world to access quality education at a fraction of the cost?
  • Will MOOCs replace university lectures all together?

There a myriad questions and no answers surrounding MOOCs but they are forcing universities to take online education more seriously. Furthermore, there is the bigger question of intellectual property (who owns the course?) that will need to get sorted out sooner or later. All eyes are on the big players to to take the first step.

What’s next?

Time can only tell what will the impact of MOOCs be on universities’ enrollment, finances, etc.  What is clear is that people are consuming educational content avidly and are hungry for more. This is clearly evidenced by new ventures.  Beyond the threat that these new outfits might pose to the traditional players, it is clear that they will be innovating and experimenting with online offerings to the benefit of universities. Unlike universities, startups will have to show return to their investors and move fast to satisfy users and respond to demand. Nobody knows who and what will prevail. If anything, one would hope that at the end of the day it students that stand to benefit from increased access to quality higher education.

Want to try a class yourself?  Class central offers a complete list of free courses available online.

Author: Florencia Prada

Florencia Prada is the Head of Digital Marketing at swissnex San Francisco. While she loves all things tech, she tries hard not to get carried away by shiny objects and new ideas that are all too pervasive in Silicon Valley.

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