MOOCs are being hailed in some quarters as the salvation of higher education because they, at least theoretically, will enable large numbers of people to take courses at once and lower the high cost of obtaining a college degree. Now, being in an online program with only 20 people in it, I can tell you that online systems aren’t perfect. I can only imagine every problem that might arise with online courses with hundreds, or even thousands, of students, but here’s one we don’t have to imagine:
Michigan professor Gautam Kaul is teaching the Introduction to Finance MOOC on Coursera [an online-learning system, provided by a company of the same name that assists some colleges and universities in setting up online learning — Lex]. In a July 2 email to students, Kaul said students wanted to know correct answers to assignments but he would not oblige their requests. This means some Coursera users who get a question wrong could be left in the dark.
He called the students’ request for correct answers “reasonable” but “very difficult to accommodate.”
“If this were a one-time class, we would have considered posting answers,” Kaul wrote in an e-mail that was provided to Inside Higher Ed by a critic of MOOCs. “It will however be very difficult for us to offer this class again if we have to keep preparing new sets of questions with multiple versions to allow you to attempt each one more than once. Handing out answers will force us to do that.”
You see the problem here for the student: If you don’t know what the right answer is, you might not be able to figure out why you got the question wrong. You might not be able to, in other words, you know, learn.
See, that whole “preparing new sets of questions with multiple versions” thing is what college professors get paid to do, in part. That’s because it enables a professor to tell students where they went wrong, what the right answers are, and, most importantly, ensure that the students grasp the underlying concepts.
Part of the reason that higher-ed costs are rising faster than inflation is that productivity gains made possible by technology in many other fields aren’t always achievable in higher ed. A professor can only teach so many students, can only grade so many essays, at a time. Sure, you could make all the tests and exams multiple choice and grade them with a machine like the SAT, but when you do that, the nuance and many underlying concepts — not to mention a lot of the interrelatedness of the various subjects students study in college — go right out the window, and the value of a college degree goes right along with them.
MOOCs may well be the best tool, or the best tool available, for some forms of education. But to surrender higher education to them, as some private interests want us to do, would be the educational equipment of scrapping our military at a time when many of our allies and adversaries are expanding their own. It would be unilateral surrender of world leadership. I don’t know about you, but I like being on top and would like to stay there.