by Alexandra Garner

With technology advancing so quickly, college programs are finding it hard to keep up to date—most college and university board members are more than 50 years old, not “digital natives,” yet they recognize that technology is a necessary part of educating today’s students. According to a survey held by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), more than twice as many board members think online learning will be “important” or “essential” in five years compared to today. The same survey discovered that more than one-third of board members believe their institutions are moving too slowly with online learning, showing that board members understand the importance of providing educational technology to students. Questions to consider are overwhelming: Should more colleges offer online classes to students all over the world? Should the curriculum for educating students include teaching online as a component? Should colleges explore or expand massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a way of offering college credit to anybody who can complete the course with a passing grade or as a supplement to courses for those already enrolled?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, pioneers in educational technology, have embraced technology in the field of education, starting edX, a nonprofit company featuring online course programs with goals including understanding the different ways students learn and technology’s role in that process. With students in over 150 countries, edX was created for students and institutions seeking to transform themselves “through cutting-edge technologies, innovative pedagogy, and rigorous courses.” Thirty universities offer free courses through edX, in topics including science, math, music, philosophy, economics, finance, law and literature.

The flexibility of online courses allows students to connect to the material at any time and as often as they like. Online education particularly benefits students in rural and remote areas, who find the process more accessible and affordable. The edX platform has enrolled 1.25 million learners, which is over ten times the number of living MIT graduates. One professor states that the number of students who completed his MOOC is approximately equal to the number of students he has had in the classroom in his entire career. MOOCs are also beneficial to the university, as they reach many thousands of students at a comparatively low cost. MOOCs allow anyone to try different courses or pursue a certificate, and there are many different reasons why people enroll. Many people often enroll in the courses simply to look around and try the subjects out—something much more difficult in traditional college classrooms. For this reason, the attrition rates for MOOCs are enormously high, a statistic that many people use when arguing against the concept. In reality, the rate of students completing the courses is much higher when you better determine who are the “dedicated” students; i.e., students who watch the videos and complete the first assignment provide a much better look into serious MOOC students than those who simply press the ”enroll” button.

Despite the significant benefits, online courses may be less practical for certain subjects—a professor cannot grade thousands of papers per semester, and papers are vital in critical thinking and humanities courses. MOOCs cannot provide creative writing workshops or one-on-one meetings with professors. Although it is clear that technology will significantly impact the college experience, there are important aspects of education that technology cannot replace, such as the experience of hands-on problem solving and teamwork, skills from lab research or workshops, and the art of public speaking. Universities and colleges are at a point where they need to decide how they want to experiment with technology. How extensively will technology transform higher education, and at what rate?

Did You Know?
Designed to provide the content of a college class to a much broader audience, massive online open courses (MOOCs) are ongoing experiments in higher education. After a course led by a Stanford professor on artificial intelligence attracted 100,000 students two years ago, some more recent attempts to bring college course content online have followed with disappointing results. Udacity, a Silicon Valley company, initiated a MOOC at San Jose State University (SJSU) for a low price and college credit, but its first pilot program ended with passing rates of only 50 percent or lower. Their subsequent trial of the pilot program was open to students who already had college degrees and had significantly higher pass rates, more in line with those of students on campus at SJSU. But students who enrolled for these MOOCs cited reasons like a love of learning and hopes for furthering their career skills rather than the MOOCs being the only available options for taking certain college courses.

Supporters of MOOCs’ potential role in education say that their presence is evolving. Instead of simply constituting the course itself, MOOCs are becoming supplemental to college and high school classrooms with videos available for watching anywhere. So-called “communicative MOOCs” are also appearing, and these MOOCs have the goal of facilitating discussion rather than providing a lecture directly from a professor.

The nonprofit online education initiative edX will offer lessons that can be used in a variety of ways too, whether in a high school classroom to prepare students for AP exams, or as MOOCs that any learner in the world can use to his or her benefit.