Will Free Online Courses Replace College Degrees?

September, 2013

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and others have asked: Why pay tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over four years for a college degree when you can study the same content delivered by professors from Harvard and other prestigious universities for free?

Hawaii Business asked local professionals who work in higher education whether MOOCs – massive open online courses – mean the end of colleges and whether the logic of the argument is valid.

“No, I don’t think so,” says Bill Chismar, dean of theOutreach College at UH, clarifying: “Again, we have different populations. Why would someone do an online course? Well, it’s not a choice between an online or an in-class course – it’s the online course or nothing because they just can’t get to campus.”

This population, according to Chismar, consisting of distance and adult learners, is the target audience of MOOC education. Consequently, online courses are not so much a revolution but a logical development of already existing programs that benefit nontraditional students. Schools that create MOOCs are trying to expand their reach and educate those people without straining their physical resources.

According to Chismar, this doesn’t threaten higher education as we know it: “And yes, some people would say, ‘I’m happy with this online degree.’ Some people are making that trade-off,” Chismar continues. “But it’s not going to be a lot. Colleges are not really worried that everybody’s going to do that.”

Data seem to support Chismar. According to one recent survey by higher education IT management company Enterasys, MOOC takers see the courses less enthusiastically than what media hype suggests. The top three answers for MOOCs’ purposes are: continuing education (72 percent), nondegree programs (59 percent) and technical training (53 percent).

Skepticism about the value of online courses may be due to their integrity problems. Jared Marcum, director of online learning at Brigham Young University Hawaii, cautions against reading too much into a score because the “legitimacy of MOOC certificates comes into question every time there is anything more than the intrinsic motivation of learning.”

When asked whether free online courses may replace four-year degrees, Marcum answers with a thought experiment: “If I was an employer, and I had somebody with a Harvard degree and somebody with certificates from a bunch of MOOCs, I am hiring the Harvard degree person, obviously. Even if I had someone who had gone through (prestigious) edX MOOCs and someone who had a degree from, say, Arizona State, I would still hire the candidate with a traditional degree.”

Brandon Kurisu, president of Hawaii technology company Upspring Media, sees important benefits in acquiring a traditional in-class degree. “It goes back to the development of communication skills,” he says. “In our company you have to wear a lot of different hats – we have ten employees and you don’t have the luxury of just being a programmer – you have to interact with clients, present your work. … In that regard someone who went to a traditional university in the traditional route would be better prepared” than someone who just took MOOCs.

Arlene Burgess, a career counselor at Hawaii Pacific University, understands this sentiment. For her, at least some of the criticism of online education is because of a generation gap. “People who are hiring today,” she says, “probably themselves have brick-and-mortar degrees from some institution. …. [They] are feeling uncertain and uncomfortable with people who are going to get their degrees in different ways. And I’ve seen that in my work.”

Burgess compares the current situation with the backlash against the online degrees offered by for-profit universities a decade ago, an example also cited by HPU’s VP of marketing, Todd Simmons. On the “Why pay when you can have it free” question, the VP comments: “It’s definitely a valid argument.”

“I don’t know what the reality of that argument will turn out to be,” Simmons quickly elaborates. “The private for-profits – the University of Phoenixes, the Full Sails, etc. of the world – got out there on a less ambitious, but I think similar, proposition: ‘Why do you need to go to the big established universities? You don’t need a dorm, an athletics team, campus life, instructors who have been there for years. Just come to our classroom at your convenience, or take it online, and we’ll get you through quickly, and help you get employed.’

“What we found is that those credentials have largely been not as desirable,” concludes Simmons. It’s too early to say whether the value of MOOCs will follow a similar development.

What seems clear though, is that people are not likely to give up tried-and-tested (and expensive) ways of verifying skills and knowledge for adventurous new approaches. Most observers consider Georgia Tech’s all-online degree the most we can expect with current technology: the master’s degree in computer science requires a related undergraduate degree and fees for proctored exams. That’s not really an open education, but closer to a traditional online program.

Another popular view is that MOOCs based on right and wrong answers – such as in mathematics and science – are more suitable for online grading than courses that require the testing and grading of open-ended questions, such as in the humanities and social sciences. The Enterasys study quoted earlier says just 19 percent of online learners believe MOOCs are suitable for all courses.

Sam Joseph, an HPU professor who taught a computer science MOOC through edX this summer, is among this majority for now. Joseph considers his specialty “particularly well suited” to online education, and is less sure about more general introductory courses. Even with this clarification, though, Joseph deems the MOOC concept a positive step forward, if not necessarily a disruptive innovation: “I think it’s entirely possible that MOOCs may undermine higher education institutions that are not offering the highest quality of courses and value for money to their students.”

Somewhat at odds with Kurisu’s observation, Joseph doesn’t think there’s anything intrinsically unrepeatable in the traditional education experience and believes that the math and science bias of current online courses might be eliminated by future developments.

“With the new technologies that are rolling out in terms of remote collaboration software such as Google hangouts, Multiway Skype screenshare etc., the majority of classes can be taught just as well in MOOC format, if not better than at a physical institution,” Joseph says.

(See also: Local universities not ready to join the revolution)

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