The number of students who have gone through Peter Struck's University of Pennsylvania course on Greek and Roman mythology in his 15 years of offering it on campus pales in comparison to the number currently enrolled to the massive online open course he is offering this fall. More than 50,000 people are following along with Struck as he guides them through the intricacies of Homer and Sophocles using the platform provided by the MOOC pioneer Coursera.
Struck said that he finds himself amazed by the sheer reach made possible by online education. Among those taking his course this year include students from as far away as Thailand and Brazil. But when asked to definitively say that the quality of instruction offered by a MOOC is similar to what he provides to his tuition-paying students who actually attend his lectures at U Penn, he demurs.
"Where you have a back-and-forth, interrogating each other ideas, finding shades of gray in each other's ideas, I don't know how much of that you can do in a MOOC," he said. "I can measure some things students are getting out of this course, but it's nowhere near what I can do even when I teach 300 here at Penn."
It's hard to believe that even a year ago few had heard of massive online open courses – now known typically by their acronym "MOOC." Thanks to Coursera, and the edX consortium, led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, it would be equally as difficult to find anyone, at least in academia, who is not familiar with the concept. ABC News compares MOOCs to a meteorite that has shaken up a field that is typically extremely change-averse.
Yet those who want to see online education go further are stymied in two ways: as of now, universities seem downright reluctant to offer college credit for MOOC work, and for those schools that offer online courses, they appear to be no cheaper than traditional ones.
Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education, refers to the "iron triangle" of higher education: cost, access and quality. The assumption has always been it's a zero-sum game — you can improve any one of those only at the expense of the others. There's also the famous analogy of Princeton economists William Baumol and William Bowen from the 1960s, that college teaching is akin to a string quartet. No matter how technology improves, a string quartet simply can't be performed (well) by fewer people than in Beethoven's day. So the relative cost of college (and musical performance) will always rise, relative to other things where efficiency does improve.
There is yet another hurdle standing in the way of MOOC acceptance as a legitimate way to deliver instruction: cheating. At the moment, edX is exploring a partnership with a company that would allow it offer access to regional centers where the knowledge gained via MOOCs could be assessed by proctored exams. Another possibility would be for students who have no access to a regional testing center to have their exams proctored remotely via webcam. In other words, everyone involved with online learning believes that a solution can be found — even if they are not yet sure what form that solution will take.