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August 07, 2014

MIT and other colleges and universities are seriously considering whether to give accepted students credit for open online courses. The idea is to cut costs and get students into the workforce faster. (Flickr/Nietenage)

The buzz around open online courses, often free and occasionally for credit, is fading. But as tuition prices and student debt soar, online learning continues to grow. One of the largest providers of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, is Harvard and MIT's edX. Some 2.5 million people have signed up for these classes, ranging from the Introduction to Computer Science to The Ancient Greek Hero.

So what do most students get for completing one of these courses? New knowledge and maybe a certificate of completion, but no credit. WGBH’s On Campus caught up with a student-researcher who predicts colleges and universities will soon offer some form of credit for MOOCs.


Over the course of a year, Jonathan Haber took 34 free online courses. His goal was to earn the equivalent of a B.A. in Philosophy. For the father of two sons, it was an existential experience.

“I realized a lot of the people commenting on MOOCs all had something in common: They had not actually taken many of them, or even one of them,” Haber said. “I realized to get a real sense of what they could and couldn't do, I couldn't just take one course - I needed to take enough courses to get a real sense of what they're like from different technology platforms, different providers, different universities, different professors."

Haber was methodical in his approach, dividing his courses into four three-month semesters even though he was logging on from his home in Lexington.

“I didn't shave,” Haber said. “I wore the same shirt I had been wearing for like three months!"

Haber structured his day much like a college student would on campus.

"I would take my Einstein's Relativity course at 11 on Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” Haber recalled, sitting at his kitchen table. "I would take my Greek Hero class on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons."

Haber is typical of those who sign up for MOOCs. They tend to be employed, older men who are looking for enrichment. Like many of these participants, the 52-year-old already has a degree.

"I've got a B.A. in chemistry from Wesleyan University from back in the '80s,” Haber said. “Other than that, I have my one-year MOOC B.A. in Philosophy."

Haber says it’s hard to determine which degree is more valuable in today’s marketplace. To get a better idea, he attended a major philosophical conference to test the value of his degree.

"I sat in on sessions and my final exam was to see, ‘Did I feel like an idiot?’ 'Was I in way over my head?’ And I followed everything, even on discussions of philosophers I didn't know. I even asked a couple questions that were no more easily swatted away than questions coming from PhDs."

Last year, Haber got a book deal to write about his experience. MOOCs: The Essential Guide is due out this fall. The one thing he didn't get was college credit. He predicts that will change.

"I think, over time, MOOCs may find hope alongside AP, alongside other credit-bearing mechanisms for students" Haber said.

Listen to Kirk's extended interview with Haber:

Over the past few years, there's been a lot of hype about the impact of massive open online courses and how they might shake higher education to its core. But skepticism among academics is mounting.

"In order for something to have the markers of what we actually call a disruptive innovation, you have to have the right customers, the right technology," said Michelle Weise, a research fellow at the Clayton Christenson Institute for Disruptive Innovation.

She doubts whether traditional colleges and universities will ever count these online courses toward credit.

"It's very difficult to imagine traditional institutions being willing to accept another learning provider's offerings because the way they deliver their courses is the way they believe the courses should be delivered," said Weise.

To give credit, schools would have to determine whether students completed the course and learned well. That kind of assessment, Weise argues, can't be done on a massive scale - for free.

Technology theorist Clay Shirky disagrees. He predicts the same technology that undermined the music and media industries is disrupting higher education.

"The most radical experiments are in a way the ones that produce the most conservative credentials, which is a regular college degree," said Shirky.

Shirky points to the University of the People in Pasedena, California, which offers tuition-free online degrees in business and computer science.

"They use online delivery to have a worldwide audience and keep the cost low,” Shirky said. “So in terms of reach and delivery, they are very radical. And in terms of output, they are very conservative."

The NYU professor is calling on higher education to make changes now, before its ivory towers become relics.

"Strategically, we've got really only two options, which is one: become the people who offer the online classes,” Shirky said. “And the other is to figure out how to make the fact that we have real people in physical classrooms reacting in real-time - how to make that special enough to be worth paying for."

Listen to Clay Shirky's interview on WGBH's Innovation Hub:

With a renewed focus on graduate outcomes, colleges and universities are slowly beginning to recognize the potential of massive open online courses. Wesleyan president Michael Roth teaches a MOOC, and he thinks the technology can break down existing social and economic barriers.

"Higher education in the United States has traditionally functioned as a vehicle for social mobility, and as costs have escalated, and financial aid has not kept up with those costs, elite education has become a way of cementing privilege," Ross told NPR during a recent interview

Roth said teaching a MOOC has been a powerful experience. "I’ve gotten to know my many students online.” he said. “It’s not the same thing as giving a seminar, far from it, but I think that the MOOCs are a great experiment in bringing educational practices to a wide variety of audiences."

Roth isn't alone. Administrators at MIT are exploring the implications of admitted students having taken free online courses. To make MIT's education more flexible, they are seriously considering whether departments should be more adaptable by allowing certification through online-learning.

In Lexington, Jonathan Haber doesn't think the market for MOOCs will reduce college costs.

"Frankly, you have to be a pretty entrepreneurial student, really motivated to keep your tuition bills as low as possible,” Haber said. “The number of students who fall into that category are quite small."

And, Haber points out, those might be the same students inclined to bag college altogether.

In 2013, On Campus explored whether massive open online courses were disrupting higher education's business model by giving away knowledge for free. Listen to our feature story on the man behind the movement, edX president Anant Agarwal. 

Jonathan Haber's Interview Highlights:

Carapezza: First of all, why would you want to take so many open online courses?

Haber: I originally discovered MOOCS at the end of 2012. At that time there was a lot of talk that MOOCS were going to revolutionize education, going to rock higher education to its foundations. As I read more I realized a lot of the people commenting on MOOCS all had something in common. They had not actually taken many of them, are even one of them. And I realized to get a real sense of what they could and couldn't do, I couldn't just take one course, I needed to take enough coursers to be able to get a real sense of what they're like from different technology platforms, different providers, different universities, different professors and that was genesis of my degree of freedom project.

Carapezza: What was it like to complete all these courses and what did your typical day look like?

Haber: I decided I was going to take these coursers as a seriously as residential college coursers, so this is what I did for the year: I took the courses as well as writing about the experience. I structured my day very much like a college day in that I scheduled classes for different times of the day. I would take my Einstein's relativity course at 11 on Monday, Wednesday Friday. I would take my Greek Hero Class on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I found actually without that structure, without treating it like a real college class, it is really difficult to take a MOOC from beginning to end because they're not passive learning, there's actual active learning, note taking, close paying attention, not multi-tasking.

Carapezza: What was the workload? How many courses did you end up taking?

Haber: The total ended up being 34 courses that matched the distribution and degree requirements for a B.A. in philosophy. Not all were MOOCS- in some cases I found other free learning tools that would help me meet my degree requirements. Of the MOOC category there was an interesting kind of intimacy created by the course itself. I can think of a course I took from Harvard on the Ancient Greek Hero. The way the videos were structured were as conversations between the professors and his colleagues and his students. In an interesting way, the thing that should be the most impersonal, video lectures, created a sense of intimacy that I did not find in other learning methods.

Carapezza: What's your opinion on course credit?

Haber: You need to keep in mind that not all MOOCs are created equal. Some of the courses I took went on for 14-17 weeks and required several papers or some pretty rigorous tests. Others went on for just 6-8 weeks, and you could pass by just answering some relatively easy multiple choice questions. And I think that's by design. Professors have different goals for their class; Some are very much trying to replicate an existing residential class and put as much syllabus material as they can on the web, and others feel liberated from the semester system and can teach just that chunk of material that they really love and wrap it into a 6-8 week course. So it's very hard to calibrate and simply say a MOOC is a college course, because it's not.

higher ed, Harvard, edX, MIT, MOOCs, online learning, innovation, new business models

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