Forty public universities plan to offer introductory courses online free and for credit to anyone in the world, in hopes of enticing students to enroll and pay tuition to complete related degree programs. In the program—MOOC2Degree—the universities, including the University of Cincinnati and University of Arkansas, will convert existing online courses to massive open online courses—MOOCs. MOOCs have recently grown in popularity as prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Stanford made public certain course materials, but thus far have not carried credit.
“We’re taking the MOOC idea, but now it will be part of a degree program, not a novelty,” Randy Best, the chairman of Academic Partnerships, a company that helps public universities move their courses online, told the New York Times.
In its arrangement with partner universities, Academic Partnerships recruits students to MOOC2Degree courses and receives an undisclosed share of tuition universities earn from students who continue their degree programs. If MOOC2Degree is successful, the new source of revenue could provide a lifeline to universities struggling from declining state budgets.
“It’s a bold strategy on the part of the institutions,” Michael Tanner, vice president for academic affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, told the Times. “In some sense, it’s a new recruitment strategy: Give them a free sample, and maybe they’ll find they have an appetite for it. It’s hard to say how well it will work. The MOOC business will become crowded over time.”
The universities and Academic Partnerships hope the “freebie” will engage students hesitant about investing in an online education its true value without any initial financial risk.
“While the number of online education opportunities continues to grow at an incredible pace, there are still many adults who are apprehensive about the experience and demands of learning online,” Phil Regier of Arizona State University Online told the Verge. “We want people to experience what a high-quality online course is really about, with all the academic rigor, interactions and opportunities we provide.”
According to the Times, most universities participating in MOOC2Degree offer professional development programs which lead to degrees such as a master’s in education or a bachelor of science in nursing. The University of Texas, Arlington, for example, has offered a free introductory course for nurses with an RN seeking a bachelor’s degree, and between 72 and 84 percent of MOOC students enrolled and paid for the program’s second course.
Other institutions, like the University of Cincinnati, offer more general courses, such as Innovation and Design Thinking which can lead to a master’s in either business or engineering.
“We’re confident that once MOOC students begin interacting with our expert faculty and their fellow classmates, they’ll begin forming a lasting educational relationship with the university,” said Lawrence J. Johnson, the interim provost.
Still, the MOOC model has its critics. In an op-ed for the Get Schooled blog, Georgia Gwinnett College assistance professor of literacy education Shannon Howrey questioned the legitimacy of MOOC education. “Is a computer-delivered education equivelant to one with a flesh-and-blood teacher, reasonable class size and concrete learning materials?” Howrey asked.
“To illustrate this concept, think about an apple,” Howrey wrote. “To understand the concept of ‘apple’ you could hear all about one from an apple specialist, you could see a picture of it, maybe read a chapter about it and even discuss it with people from all over the world. However, until you hold an apple in your hand, dissect it and take a bite you won’t know how to use the apple in any meaningful way. If you have trouble you could always observe your peers dissecting the apple, or the apple specialist could take the time to help you personally. Without this concrete experience and personal interaction you might retain a fuzzy idea of an apple, but you would probably not think to draw upon the apple to improve an old recipe or invent a new one.”
MOOCs, Howrey concluded, are not education. Instead, they are merely a means of increasing revenue for colleges. In other words, they “bait” students, market the institution, but don’t really teach anything meaningful.