Dear Commons Community,
The New York Times has an article on a new phenomenon called MOOCs or “massive open online courses” that are seen by some as a threat to traditional higher education. On the one hand, there is a credibility to these courses when hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who lack access to elite universities have been embracing them as a path toward sophisticated skills and high-paying jobs, without paying tuition or collecting a college degree. And in what some see as a threat to brick and mortar colleges and universities. On the other hand, some see MOOCs only as something supplemental to traditional higher education.
The article describes the experience of a prominent computer scientist, Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor .
“Last fall, 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled in an Artificial Intelligence course taught by Mr. Thrun and Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. An additional 200 registered for the course on campus, but a few weeks into the semester, attendance at Stanford dwindled to about 30, as those who had the option of seeing their professors in person decided they preferred the online videos, with their simple views of a hand holding a pen, working through the problems.
Mr. Thrun was enraptured by the scale of the course, and how it spawned its own culture, including a Facebook group, online discussions and an army of volunteer translators who made it available in 44 languages.
“Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said at a digital conference in Germany in January. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”
Before all the professors at CUNY and other institutions around the country start jumping out of their windows at the prospect that we are seeing the end of the profession as we know it, there will be some settling in time before the country and world moves entirely to the MOOC format. There needs to be an accepted mechanism for awarding MOOC credit. It is here that we come to the problem of cost, academic honesty and an acceptable accrediting body. A MOOC here and a MOOC there surely can provide the need to brush up or become familiar with a new technique similar to the way continuing education units are administered and awarded but this is not the same as a fully accredited diploma.
In a companion article, the issue of credentialing and the problem of cheating in particular is discussed.
“Mozilla, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and others are working to devise a system of online educational “badges” certifying exactly which skills had been learned. Some companies, like Microsoft, already offer their own certificates for trained computer technicians.
Some educators doubt that such credentials will ever command as much respect as a diploma from a well-known college. And of course, to be trustworthy, alternative credentials would have to be at least as cheat-proof as traditional ones. And that is not so simple.
At Stanford University, where Jennifer Widom, the chairwoman of the computer science department, taught an online database course last semester to more than 90,000 people, some found a covert route to high scores.
“There were definitely people getting multiple accounts and using some to practice and the other to get a perfect score,” said Dr. Widom, who still has hundreds of assignments trickling in every day for grading. “There were some who completed the exam with a perfect score in three minutes and the only way they could have done that was if they had already done the problems in another account. My philosophy was not to be concerned in the least about people who cheat. But if there’s going to be actual certification that people depend on, those problems will have to be addressed.”
I must say teaching a MOOC sounds like great fun.