MOOCs and Traditional Online Courses Are on a Collision Path

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Updated 27 July 2015

In everyone’s bucket list, under the heading “Education,” is “Attend an elite college.” Until recently, however, this item has remained unchecked for the vast majority. According to Jonathan Wai, “Only about 2% to 5% of all US undergraduates went to … elite schools.”1

Thanks to MOOCs, the economic and scholastic barriers are going down. And thanks to Natalie Morin,2 students in the U.S. and the world over don’t have to look far for elite offerings. Among the 31 in her list are:

Harvard (“Science and Cooking; Tangible Things: Discovering History Through Artworks, Artifacts, Scientific Specimens; Poetry in America: The Civil War and Its Aftermath”); MIT (“Introduction to Computer Science and Programming; Circuits and Electronics; Molecular Biology; User Innovation: A Path to Entrepreneurship; Introductory Physics: Classical Mechanics”); Princeton (“Computer Architecture; Effective Altruism; Imagining Other Earths; Paradoxes of War; Reinventing the Piano; Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Technology”);

Yale (“America’s Unwritten Constitution; Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty, & Disadvantage; Introduction to Classical Music; Moral Foundations of Politics”); Stanford (“Planning for a Sustainable Future with Wind, Water and the Sun; Behind and Beyond Big Data; Careers in Media Technology; Environmental Risk and Resilience; Online Certificate Program in Novel Writing; Adventures in Writing”); Columbia (“The Civil War and Reconstruction 1850-1861; The Civil War and Reconstruction 1861-1865; The Civil War and Reconstruction 1865-1890”); University of Pennsylvania (“An Introduction to Corporate Finance; The Global Business of Sports; Modern & Contemporary American Poetry; Introduction to Key Constitutional Concepts and Supreme Court Cases”);

University of Chicago (“Asset Pricing; Internet Giants; Global Warming; Understanding the Brain; Critical Issues in Urban Education”); Dartmouth (“Introduction to Italian Opera; Introduction to Environmental Science; The Engineering Structures Around Us”); Cornell (“The Ethics of Eating; American Capitalism: A History; The Computing Technology: Inside Your Smartphone; Introduction to Global Hospitality Management”);

Johns Hopkins (“Psychological First Aid; Confronting Gender Based Violence: Global Lessons with Case Studies from India; Major Depression in the Population: A Public Health Approach”); Northwestern (“Teaching the Violin and Viola: Creating a Healthy Foundation; Career 911: Your Future Job in Medicine and Healthcare; Understanding Media by Understanding Google”); Berkeley (“The Science of Happiness; Biology for Voters; Electronic Interfaces: Bridging the Physical and Digital Worlds”);

Wellesley (“Shakespeare: On the Page and in Performance; Introduction to Global Sociology; Was Alexander Great? The Life, Leadership and Legacies of History’s Greatest Warrior; Introduction to Human Evolution”); Georgetown (“The Divine Comedy: Dante’s Journey to Freedom; Globalization’s Winners and Losers: Challenges for Developed and Developing Countries; Terrorism and Counterterrorism”).

MOOCs are free and completely online, they’re open to everyone, and the registration process is simple. You’re free to plug in when and where you want for as long as you want, and if you decide to complete the course, you could earn a certificate. In some cases, a certificate requires a small fee.

Developers are beginning to design a second generation of MOOCs, or MOOC2, that can be taken for credit toward college degrees. For example, see “edX-ASU Global Freshman Academy: Will It Work?” As these evolve, the distinction between online courses locked into traditional structures and MOOCs will gradually disappear.

A key obstacle to the growth of MOOC2 has been pricing. MOOCs that cost as much as traditional onground courses are simply out of reach for nontraditional students who make up the bulk of participants. However, a recent trend toward drastically lowering the cost of traditional courses in completely online degree programs is underway at Texas Tech and other universities. A critical element in this business model is the removal of out-of-state tuition, the final barrier to the expansion of online programs.

MOOCs and traditional online courses are on a collision path, and the impact will change the face of higher education forever, obliterating the class and geographic barriers that have limited access to elite colleges. The promise of online, from the very beginning, has always been access, and here, in the middle of 2015, the promise is gaining traction.

Addendum 7/27/15: Read Ray Rose’s comment re learners with disabilities and the accessibility challenges they pose for MOOCs and online courses. Also see his Access and Equity for All Learners in Blended and Online Education, INACOL, Oct. 2014.

1Frank Bruni Is Wrong About Ivy League Schools,” Quartz, 22 Mar. 2015.
231 Elite Colleges That Offer Free Online Learning,”, 23 July 2015.

11 Responses

  1. […] By Jim Shimabukuro Editor In everyone's bucket list, under the heading "Education," is "Attend an elite college." Until recently, however, this item has remained unchecked for the vast majority. Ac…  […]

  2. […] “By Jim Shimabukuro Editor In everyone's bucket list, under the heading "Education," is "Attend an elite college." Until recently, however, this item has remained unchecked for the vast majority. Ac…”  […]

  3. Jim: While you’re right that conceptually MOOCs are “open to everyone” as the NFB/NFD suit alleges, not everyone can get the benefits. The edX settlement with Justice, basically acknowledges that the course creators aren’t always making courses (MOOCs in this case) fully accessible. (And here we are at the 25th anniversary of the ADA).

    Yes, this is my soapbox, but I think it’s important to remind folks that just putting a course online doesn’t make it open to everyone. It does require some design considerations — whether it be a MOOC or other form of online course.

    I know you know that, but I think sometimes we need to be more overt in making the point about accessible online learning.

    • Ray, thanks for the reminder that accessibility to MOOCs is still a pipe dream for many with disabilities. MOOCs provide an open window for learning, but, as you say, unless they’re specifically designed to accommodate the full spectrum of students, they remain partially closed.

      What, in your opinion, are the most critical shortcomings in MOOC design in meeting the needs of the disabled?

      • The most obvious issue with MOOCs is the use of video and the lack of captioning. OCR [Office for Civil Rights] has been clear that all video in online learning environments must be clearly captioned. The Harvard/MIT folks chose to not caption, and depend on the YouTube captioning application that even YouTube states is not adequate as the only provision for captioning. So, let’s start with that because we know that was a major part of the suit.

        File format is another. PDFs can be saved as graphics or as searchable text. A PDF as a graphic can not be read by a screen reader.

        OCR says all graphics must have functional learning related Alt Tags. My recommendation to IDs is to not use eye candy graphics. Use only graphics relative to the content and instruction and clearly label them with functional labels. Back to the PDFs — if you put up a document as a graphic then the Alt Tag would need to be all the text in the document — that doesn’t make sense.

        There are obviously more specific issues, but from a designer’s perspective, I think these are some of the more critical. Of course the easiest is color and contrast. About a quarter of males have some sort of color blindness. Color selection and color contrast are issues easily addressed, if only the designer thinks about it.

        • A fancy MOOC should have CC, but for those with limited resources, this is an expensive option. I am trying to come up with a better solution for myself.

          PDFs, like Flash, should not appear in online content — and for very different reasons.

          Likewise, all content-related images must have ALT tags.

          WRT color, I have one of the many varieties of color blindness and am quite sensitive to this issue. I make an effort to use primary colors and to ensure that the B&W version is equally usable. There are some instances where this is just impossible in science. Similarly, the hard of hearing may have problems with a sound lab that correlates frequency to the heard pitch of the sound.

          While there are ways to overcome these limitations, they are so difficult to deliver as to render them unusable in practice. I keep looking for innovative solutions and hope that I can afford to implement them.

          We are careful to allow keyboard solutions to just about every operation that uses a mouse. We use a creation platform that has accessibility built in. Yet, due to the nature of delivering science labs over the Internet, we are far from perfect and yet are as close as we can afford to be to state of the art.

          As time moves along, accessibility will become better and better. In the meantime, an aide is the best solution for the times when the technology just does not match our hopes and expectations.

          • Actually Harry I disagree with you. It’s not the fancy MOOC’s role to provide captioning, it’s whomever creates the video in the first place. And, if you’re doing live captioning it is expensive, but if you’re taking video and posting it on YouTube, then their autocaptioning tool can help create complete captioning. They report accuracy is between 50% and 75% depending on speaker’s clarity, accent, and the subject matter. Scientific content will be closer to the 50% side, but get a grad student to complete the captioning.

            It’s still not automatic and I don’t think there will be a cheap automatic fully accurate captioning tool in the near future. I’d wanted to pursue an NSF grant to develop an auto-captioning, live-caption tool for webinars and such, but couldn’t find the technical folks that thought it was possible for the available grant amounts.

            You do sound like you’re heading in the right direction and paying much more attention to this issue than the majority of folks. Thanks for that.

          • Role or not, the elite MOOC providers have funds. That’s all that I intended to remark. I expect that many MOOC courses have videos provided by the institutions that deliver them — for example, lectures. If they have taken videos from elsewhere, then it must be by license or material in the public domain. In the former case, captioning by either party could be part of the deal. In the latter case, I’d say that free material could be captioned by the institution. I often watch TV with captioning on because I watch plenty of BBC stuff, and the accents often baffle my ears. Sometimes, I am surprised at the errors.

            In any event, what ought to be rarely is what is. I really have no argument with what you say. I would like to see automatic captioning have a higher accuracy, but cannot expect it unless the narration is done by a professional with excellent diction.

  4. These are exciting times indeed! I reiterate my earlier remarks re MOOCs. Until this is a truly mature learning vehicle, we will find many road bumps, detours, washed-out bridges, and other issues analogous to building an interstate highway system. Every problem can be solved, but until the “engineering” has been done and the pilots tested, we are still in unknown territory.

    This simple fact is both a plus and a minus. The negative comes from the limitations (such as mentioned by Ray above) of a developing system. The positive comes from the great opportunities for innovation that lie before us.

    • Harry, you’re right. MOOCs still have a long way to go in becoming a viable path to college degrees. They’re still evolving, and, as you say, that’s good news.

      Online is the world’s largest learning platform, and MOOCs are just one means to harness its power. Online is a territory so vast that we’ve barely begun to map it. And this is good news. There’s so much more to explore, to discover, to learn, to harness. The future for online learning is definitely exciting!

      • Online is the future. Sometimes, it’s hard to see that among the messes we deal with daily.

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