May 15, 2014

Disruptor, Distracter, or What?

By Andrew P. Kelly

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A Policymaker’s Guide to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS)

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a new form of digital learning that has enthralled some, infuriated others, and changed the conversation about higher education in the U.S. and abroad. Lost in this polarizing debate is a clear assessment of how this new medium is actually affecting postsecondary education and how it could be used in the future.

In this paper, Andrew P. Kelly clarifies the debate around the purpose and potential of MOOCs. Kelly argues that MOOCs are neither a panacea nor a passing fad, and instead, can serve as a tool for enhancing higher education and career training if properly deployed.

Kelly highlights four early lessons learned in the first few years of innovation with MOOCs. His analysis shows that despite predictions that MOOCs would become a substitute for traditional college courses, few students have actually redeemed MOOCs for college credit. Most of the students who register for MOOCs already have a college degree, are employed, and more interested in earning job skills than college credit. Likewise, efforts to use online courses to improve remedial education have disappointed.

On the other hand, the development of MOOC-enhanced hybrid models on traditional campuses could improve student outcomes and lower costs. Furthermore, MOOCs are well designed to close so-called skills gaps between what colleges teach and employers need. Employers have begun to partner with MOOC providers to create online career and technical training. Over time, MOOCs may change the way the American labor force builds its occupational skills.

Based on the experience with MOOCs to date Kelly identifies four key recommendations for policymakers:

  • Deploy MOOCs strategically to improve the educational pipeline. Using low-cost open courses and assessments to diagnose academic needs could help students avoid remediation, while gifted students could benefit from access to MOOCs in high school.
  • Reform articulation and finance policies to facilitate MOOCs-to-credit. Policymakers should push their state systems to adopt common course numbering, create small grants for low-cost credits, and link MOOCs to existing credit-by-exam programs.
  • Challenge colleges to adopt hybrid models and use them to improve affordability. Policymakers should use the bully pulpit and competitive grants to encourage institutions to develop hybrid courses that reduce costs and keep tuition affordable.
  • Extend MOOCs to other occupational training. Leaders should experiment with MOOCs as a low-cost complement to traditional workforce training programs, especially in fields where workers are in high demand.
  • Clarify ownership of publicly funded content and maintain safe harbors for MOOC providers. Policymakers should work to ensure that content created with public dollars is openly licensed and freely available to state residents and that existing safe harbor provisions protect MOOCs from legal issues.

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