MOOCs and the Changing Landscape of Higher Ed: in which I take a sonic screwdriver to conventional wisdom

If you’ve been a member of the human race for the last couple years (yes, Daleks, this excuses you from reading, but I do have some student debt I’d like you to EX-TER-MI-NATE), then you’ve no doubt been made aware of the growing concern over the cost of higher education in the US (and likely abroad as well).

I wish Daleks could exterminate my STUDENT LOAN DEBT!

With the recession, jobs have become harder to secure, giving pause to a demographic who might have gone to college a decade ago without hesitation. Not long ago, “having the college experience” was a given, even for those who had no intention of needing or completing a Bachelor’s degree. (For the Daleks, we in the states frequently use the words college and university interchangeably, even though there is a technical difference).

Now potential students (or, more often, their parents) count the cost (as they should) of whether spending thousands of dollars—many thousands when attending a private institution—is worth the return. Once upon a time, the first year or two of college was in no small part intended to expose students to a wide array of fields and disciplines so they could make an informed choice about what it was they wanted to pursue. Now that seems like money down the drain.

Enter, MOOCsmassive open online courses. These free courses, offered by reputable institutions, offer a full university level course for those who are interested. Coursera, a for-profit edu-tech organization partners with schools such as Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and The University of Michigan, boasting more than 1 million students from 196 countries enrolled in at least one course as of February 2013.

MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley, University of Texas System, and others have also created their own version of MOOCs that downplay the commercialization of higher education.

Add to this the free and engaging education opportunities offered by Khan Academy, TED, iTunes U, YouTube (PBS Idea Channel, CrashCourse, MinutePhysics, VeritassiumVi Hart and many others). Although not necessarily geared for higher education, there are also sites like ShowMe and Educreations, which offer amateurs the opportunity to share with each other what they know.

MOOCs offer a more “certified” educational experience than YouTube, simply because they tend to be taught by real professors at real universities. Now, I have never participated in a MOOC, so my perspective is that of an outsider speculating on what it must be like to be an insider. My suspicion is that, much like the TARDIS, the inside is much bigger than the outside. One fear folks have about MOOCs is the inability to get meaningful feedback from students (not when your enrollment exceeds 100,000), and the potential lack of quality control. It’s a lot like self-publishing—where is the gatekeeper who makes sure than what’s being disseminated isn’t rubbish? Well, since they are free courses, you get out of them what you put in—not unlike traditional classroom-based courses.

With so many opportunities for self-education, there are inexpensive alternatives for the undecided 18-year-old, which, statistically speaking, is most of them. Take a year or two of free education online, figure out what you love—then go to an institution of higher learning with a bit of maturity under your belt and a lot of focus on your goals.

Here’s the catch, this works if one is self-motivated. Many of these resources are self-paced, and don’t require a particular schedule—something that many people find difficult to enforce on themselves. Kind of like many aspects of life, though, right? There is a lot out there on MOOCs, both pro and con, and it’s worthwhile to learn a bit about the potential upsides and downsides. This is a wibbly-wobbly, timer-wimey era in which to grow up.