Lecture hall at the University of Paris, France

Lecture hall at the University of Paris, France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My oldest grandson, Will, is getting his college degree online. He just turned 20 and he’s already in his junior year. He’ll have a full-on accredited undergraduate degree by the time he is 21. He is already looking for work following his graduation. He is officially courting Savanah. He is at least two years ahead of his peers, maybe more.

This article in The New York Times explains the phenomenon and points out some of the ramifications. There are others as well.

These online courses are called MOOCs:

A handful of companies are offering college-level instruction — once available to only a select few, on campus, at great cost — free, to anyone with an connection.

Moreover, these massive open online courses, or MOOCs, harness the power of their huge enrollments to teach in new ways, applying crowd-sourcing technology to discussion forums and grading and enabling professors to use online lectures and reserve on-campus class time for interaction with students.

There are so many advantages here. First is the cost. Will and his dad are investing about $15,000 into his college degree. He’s living at home so his expenses are minimal. He interacts with the professors and the other online students, so the social experience isn’t eliminated. He is making friends online. That’s how young people make friends, at least initially. The professors like it as well:

Teaching Introduction to Sociology is almost second nature to Mitchell Duneier, a professor at Princeton: he has taught it 30 times, and a textbook he co-wrote is in its eighth edition. But last summer, as he transformed the class into a free online course, he had to grapple with some brand-new questions: Where should he focus his gaze while a camera recorded the lectures? How could the 40,000 students who enrolled online share their ideas? And how would he know what they were learning?

“Within three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I’d had in my whole teaching career,” he said. “I found that there’s no topic so sensitive that it can’t be discussed, civilly, in an international community.”

Change brings and risk. In this case, small colleges will have to adapt quickly or disappear:

The spread of MOOCs is likely to have wide fallout. Lower-tier colleges, already facing resistance over high tuition, may have trouble convincing students that their courses are worth the price.

The article goes on to explore various implications. I think they left some out. Not only are small colleges going to face the challenge from MOOCs but larger ones as well. Why would they be exempt? What is going to be attractive about spending $250,000 at Harvard for the same degree, accredited by Harvard, that a student can get online? What is Harvard going to do with all those empty buildings?

From my point of view, what about Harvard’s ability to enlist the brightest students into the establishment? How will Skull and Bones recruit into the top levels of the American government if there are no students on campus to recruit?

MOOCs are the commodification of college education. It’s ramifications are significant and still largely unknown. This article from the NYT exposes just some of them.

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