MOOC University

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Rob Walker
Yahoo! News
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Technology has made lots of things cheaper, more efficient and available to wider audiences. Why not education?

That line of thought, while not exactly new, has manifested most recently in the considerable hype surrounding “massive open online courses” — MOOCs. While specific MOOC iterations vary in their details, the name refers to classes distributed online (and thus available to a “massive” audience) and “open” to all comers (meaning, usually, no charge): Lectures are consumed via web video, discussions happen on dedicated message boards, testing is administered online. Despite the fact that many MOOC experiments have been offered gratis, the idea has inspired several startups that clearly see profit potential downthe road. Recently in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller took a close look at edX, a nonprofit MOOC outfit backed by M.I.T. and Harvard.

The latest bit of MOOC-news comes from the Georgia Institute of Technology, which just last week announced that, in partnership with Udacity and AT&T , it will offer a full-on master’s degree in computer science in MOOC format — or rather, Georgia Tech College of Computing Dean Zvi Galil corrected me, a “MOOC 2.0” format. The program begins in 2014, and seems worth keeping an eye on. Galil certainly isn’t shy about its potential: “We’re doing it because we want to lead the revolution,” he tells me.

Per the usual MOOC dynamic, the program will be open to anyone. But if you want the outcome to include not just edification but an actual, accredited,Georgia Tech Online Master of Science in Computer Science degree, that’ll cost you: “under $7,000,” according to the school. Given that out-of-state tuition at the school is north of $26,000, and Galil says completing the offline equivalent degree typically takes a year and a half, that seems a bargain. (Even before you figure in the incalculable value of living anywhere besides Atlanta!) And obviously the cost factor is even more significant if you benchmark against the many schools that are even more expensive.

Thus the scenario raises two seemingly contradictory questions. One is whether using a MOOC platform could cost the school real-world (and higher-paying)students. Galil suggests that, revolution notwithstanding, this isn’t a big worry. The MOOC format will be most appealing to far-flung working professionals looking to burnish their credentials, and skill set, without uprooting their lives.

“Eventually,” he muses, the on-campus program “might be somewhat reduced.” But with face-to-face interaction, community, and career opportunities that stem from company visits and the like, showing up in person remains as attractive as ever in the short-term, and will always offer advantages. Physical universities (or good ones at least) where networking and other aspects of campus life remain meaningful, will survive, he says. “I’m sure of that.”

The second question, then, is what would motivate someone to pay the $7,000 at all. If you can go through the exact same program for free (or some nominal sum), and learn the exact same skills, then are you paying for an education — or a credential? Actually, Galil says, this gets at the 2.0 bit of this MOOC variation, and it’s a response to demand. “Students want the credential, the credit, a degree,” he says.

Georgia Tech, he continues, has experimented with computer-aided teaching for decades, and in the past year has offered more than a dozen MOOC-style courses. One of these went rather awry , but most have gotten “rave reviews,” according to Galil. Still, he says this experience has helped identify some limitations of the MOOC idea as it’s been realized to date.

Most notably, it’s been widely noted that the vast majority of people who start any given no-charge MOOC — 90 percent or more — don’t make it to the end. “Quite a number drop before the first assignment,” Galil notes. Somebody paying to earn a real degree is less likely to do that, he contends, and part of what they’ll get for the money is a “real infrastructure” of student services: mentors, exams administered in testing centers, and similar “additions that will make these courses valid.”

With many details still to be sorted, Galil confidently declares that the university is moving into “uncharted territory.” And really, who knows how the MOOC notion will play out? But the truth is, the actual risks involved for a serious university exploring this territory are pretty low. If it doesn’t work out, that’s part of being on the bleeding edge of technology, which is where any technology-education program wants to be. If it does turn out to be a crucial early shot in some “revolution,” well, even better. The real future of technology and education is unknowable, but the present is obvious: Experiment with “disruptive educational technologies,” to quote Georgia Tech itself. It’s the 2.0 thing to do.