Shannon Howrey is assistant professor of literacy education at Georgia Gwinnett College and parent of three school-aged children. In her second op-ed for the Get Schooled blog, she writes about the spread of MOOCs, massive open online courses delivered over the Internet to anyone who enrolls without charge.
MOOCs award students certificates rather than college credits.
The nation’s elite colleges are rushing to create MOOCs to enhance their brand and to be part of the most talked about innovation in higher education. At some point, colleges are expected to use the evolving and dynamic MOOC market to make money. Among the possible revenue sources: Data mining, selling the course material, selling sponsorships, charging tuition.
In her interesting piece, Howrey considers the future and benefits of MOOCs.
By Shannon Howrey
The AJC reported Monday that Georgia State University is entering the growing market of massive open online courses, better known as MOOCs, and plans to offer them free of charge in the near future. This is great news for students who are geographically or financially hindered from attending a brick-and-mortar school, and colleges everywhere are rushing in to get in on the action.
But philanthropy alone is not driving this initiative, and students with other no other educational options make up only a small slice of the marketing demographic.
Think of a MOOC like a printer. Printers are sold cheaply, sometimes at an initial loss to the printer company. However, to get any use out of the printer you have to keep purchasing the company’s expensive print cartridges, allowing them to recap the initial loss several times over.
Like a printer, the MOOC is offered “free” to the student, and the school invests a small amount of money for the course development, delivery platform, and maybe a real instructor. But, if a student actually wants to get any use out of the course, perhaps to gain a credential for employment, he or she will need to purchase some proof that the material has been mastered.
The “cartridge” in this case might take the form of a certificate of completion, computer-graded exam fee, or, if absolutely necessary, a professional evaluation of the student’s work. So, if the school attracts 10,000 students with a course that cost them $100,000 initially, and all 10,000 students pay the college $100 for the credential the school has netted $900,000. If the same class is offered more than once the revenue multiplies ad infinitum.
On paper this seems an ingenious idea. In what looks like a win-win situation, the college takes in millions. The students pay just $100 for credentials that would have cost several times more if offered in traditional format. And since they won’t need their summer jobs anymore to pay for tuition, they can earn an entire degree while sunbathing at the beach or sitting on the couch between video games.
This scenario will most likely draw in large numbers of newly minted high school graduates, and the MOOCs will be a big hit. But one consideration remains: Is a computer-delivered education equivalent to one with a flesh-and-blood teacher, reasonable class size, and concrete learning materials?
Every semester I ask my teacher education students to describe the teacher who had the most impact their education. Their responses are similar and usually fall into three categories: First, the teacher took an interest in them, as illustrated in responses such as, “inspired me to do my best,” “had confidence in me,” or “encouraged me to further my education.” Secondly, the teacher motivated them. These responses look something like, “She made class interesting,” or “He had us do creative projects instead of lecturing all the time.” Other comments referred to the teacher’s personal involvement in their success. These teachers “helped me when I didn’t understand something,” or “spent extra time tutoring me.”
Not surprisingly, the students’ comments echo research on how people learn. This research has shown again and again that students learn best by applying knowledge in a concrete way to a real situation. Further, their classroom environment includes opportunities for interacting with other students and a teacher who takes the time to work with them until they understand.
Learning in this way creates synaptic connections in multiple areas of the brain within and between the new concept and those learned earlier. These conditions stimulate the brain, thereby creating motivation to learn more, which creates even more connections. Those connections are the foundation of creativity and underlie every invention and original idea.
To illustrate this concept, think about an apple. To understand the concept of “apple” you could hear all about one from an apple specialist, you could see a picture of it, maybe read a chapter about it and even discuss it with people from all over the world. However, until you hold an apple in your hand, dissect it and take a bite you won’t know how to use the apple in any meaningful way. If you have trouble you could always observe your peers dissecting the apple, or the apple specialist could take the time to help you personally. Without this concrete experience and personal interaction you might retain a fuzzy idea of an apple, but you would probably not think to draw upon the apple to improve an old recipe or invent a new one.
In all the years I’ve asked the question not one student has ever said that the teachers who impacted their education most, “stuffed the most knowledge into my brain as quickly and cheaply as possible.” MOOCs are not an education. They are a means of increasing much needed revenue for colleges by leveraging their meager resources — revenue that is needed because Georgia taxpayers would rather not fund a real education.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog