Editorial: Say hello to MOOCs


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While we may like to pretend otherwise, education is far from “the great equalizer” that was the dream of famed education reformer Horace Mann. Rather, education in the United States has increasingly become a bifurcated institution, as skyrocketing tuition rates have pushed low-income students out of the university system in favor of their affluent and upper middle-class peers.

It’s no secret that, in today’s America, positive economic outcomes are highly dependent on the completion of some type of higher education. With that in mind, it is hard to see how continuing to cut off access to higher education for low-income students won’t inevitably lead to higher levels of income inequality, which is incredibly disheartening, considering that income inequality is at levels not seen since the 1920s, according to researchers at the University of California-Berkley.

In the midst of the mostly negative news coming out on this front, however, is a small little success story at the University of Iowa, which plans to launch its first free Massive Open Online Course next month.

The basic premise of the courses is that A) they are conducted via the Internet and B) they are free and available to anyone possessing some sort of Internet connection.

The particular course at the UI is focused on the works of legendary poet Walt Whitman and is structured around video sessions conducted by Professors Ed Folsom and Christopher Merrill that are followed by online discussions by the students moderated by Folsom and Merrill.

Such online courses are not exclusive to the UI; they were developed in the late-00s in Canada by a group of researchers and professors at Athabasca University in Alberta. Since then, the courses have popped up all across the globe, finally making their way to Iowa in February.

What makes the courses exciting is less the nontraditional nature of the delivery platform (the Internet) but rather the idea that higher education can be free. In a country filled with hugely expensive universities, liberal arts, and for-profit schools, this is a very unorthodox notion.

Now, it would be foolish to suggest that the courses are the answer to the question of how to make higher education more affordably.

According to a study released this month by the Babson Survey Research Group, the number of universities offering such courses is growing, and the variety of courses offered free to the public is growing, but the stats about the people signing up for and participating are less promising.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examined the behavior of users participating in free courses offered at Penn and find that very few students — between 5 and 10 percent, on average — actually complete the course they sign up for.

That number falls even further as the courses require more time and work. Not a promising sign.

Despite the flaws in the current iteration, open education is a model that policymakers in this country should strive for: universal access to higher education. The United States cannot continue to proclaim itself to be the “Land of Opportunity” while shutting off large portions of its citizenry to one of the most exciting opportunities of all. The opportunity to enrich oneself, not only with the skills necessary to compete in a modern job market, but also to enrich one’s personal and intellectual development.

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