To Harness MOOCs, Focus On The Outcomes

Many states are wrestling with how to achieve the twin goals of making higher education both more affordable and accessible to their citizens. California and, more recently, Florida have been in the news as they struggle to find ways of taming the new elephant in the room…MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). Political leaders, in apparent frustration with what they see as an intransigent academic community unwilling to control costs, see this new application of technology as the solution to concerns of access and cost. Others, including many academics, see MOOCs as an inferior intrusion into the education process that is fraught with questions of quality and effectiveness.

We have three issues here: cost, access and learning.

Let’s look first at cost. According to The College Board, the average yearly tuition and fees (not including room & board) at a four-year private college is $29,056 but just $8,655 at public institutions ($21,706 for out-of-state students).  While these are the so-called “sticker prices” that are often reduced by grants and scholarships, students who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2011 still had an average student loan debt of $26,600 as reported by The Project on Student Debt . A report from FICO Labs puts the average 2012 debt load a bit higher at $27,253. More alarming, however, is FICO’s analysis that defaults on student loans are increasing. This, they maintain, can cause a snowball effect, lowering an individual’s credit rating, making it harder for these graduates to access new credit, which in turn creates a drag on the economy.

With data like these, it’s no wonder that there is concern about the cost of earning a degree. Thus, when an innovation such as free, open education resources (OER), including MOOCs, comes along it’s understandable that officials start seeing the savings potential OER can provide. According to a recent report in The Chronicle of Higher Education, faculty and politicians may actually be in agreement on the potential cost savings. The Chronicle surveyed professors who have taught MOOCs to get their opinions on a variety of topics related to the experience. An overwhelming number (85 percent) believe that MOOCs will make the price of earning a degree less expensive.

Less cost, yes. But, what about access?

Developed and taught by faculty from some of the nation’s leading institutions these courses are essentially online versions of those that they teach in the classroom. What distinguishes MOOCs from typical online courses is that the former have class-size limits while “massively open” courses do not (25 vs. 100,000). Just as the introduction of the printing press brought the ability to share knowledge to a new level, MOOCs have the potential to bring greater access to knowledge. The Chronicle’s study cited “a desire to increase access to higher education worldwide” as the primary motivation faculty gave for entering the world of MOOCs. Seventy-nine percent in the study said that MOOCs are “worth the hype.”

Another area of agreement. Now, what about learning?

Access to knowledge is one thing. Demonstrating that learning actually was achieved from MOOCs is another. Those professors who have taught MOOCs told The Chronicle that it was hard work and that they had learned things that would help them in their classroom versions of the course. Surprisingly, however, nearly three-fourths of those surveyed by indicated that they didn’t think students who succeed even in their own MOOCs should be awarded formal credit. While the article didn’t specify a reason for such reluctance, other observers have noted that MOOCs continue to lack a valid method for determining the extent of learning outcomes.

Here at, Excelsior College, we were founded more than 40 years ago on the simple but powerful philosophy that “What you know is more important than where or how you learned it.”  One of the key features of this philosophy is that students must demonstrate through some form of valid assessment that the learning they achieved (from whatever source) is at a college level. Excelsior enables students to do this via examination. We use our own assessments (ECE and UExcel) as well as those of others such as CLEP and DSST. All are faculty-developed, psychometrically validated instruments, delivered under controlled conditions in secure facilities. Most colleges and universities across the nation accept satisfactory performance on these toward degree requirements. Additionally, our faculty has identified free online study materials that students can use to prepare for these exams.

MOOCs have great potential to increase access, reduce costs and deliver quality instruction. However, they still have a way to go in demonstrating their ability to create genuine learning. With greater attention to participant retention (current numbers show that fewer than 10% of those who start a typical MOOC actually finish), the use of psychometrically sound outcome assessments, and assessment instrument security, it may be possible to evaluate the full benefit of MOOCs. For now, they appear to be better suited for PR, marketing and some form of continuing education (where credit is not a concern) than for degree completion.


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