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The Future of MOOCs
MOOCs in the Public Square

Andrew P. Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute has written a clear-eyed assessment of MOOCs, complete with a list of policy proposals. We find his metaphor for the online courses particularly striking:

MOOCs [are] more like health clubs than hospitals. Providing free access to a gym will encourage lots of healthy, motivated people to use it and get healthier. And that would be a good thing; healthier people will avoid costly visits to the hospital and will live longer, more productive lives. At the same time, though, doctors do not expect that access to a gym will automatically improve the health of less motivated people, especially those with serious health problems. Some of these patients likely need a personal trainer to show them the ropes and hold them accountable when they don’t show up, but that kind of personal interaction entails additional costs.Those with more significant needs will require the kind of “high touch” care that doctors and hospitals provide.

Similarly, MOOCs produce learning that would not have occurred otherwise, and that learning benefits society at home and abroad. But policymakers should not assume that MOOCs will benefit all types of learners equally. Up until now, they have mainly helped the educated get even more educated. This is not a reason to abandon the idea, or even to change it dramatically. But it does have implications for existing gaps in educational attainment that reformers must acknowledge.

Kelly notes that MOOCs in their present form are most valuable to those who have the discipline to pursue an unsupervised course, and who are probably looking to update their skills. A large proportion of MOOC students are college-educated and already have job experience. MOOCs have a poor record when it comes to remedial education; students who are already struggling in school have trouble with the free-floating format.

But things look brighter when you consider blended courses, which combine MOOCs with in-person instruction. Though only a few such classes have been tried, students who enrolled in hybridized courses were reportedly pleased with them. And remedial students who have some oversight actually do well with MOOCs. Kelly predicts, “Hybrid courses may be where MOOC platforms and content will have their biggest impact on higher education.”

His policy proposals include some sensible suggestions, including the use of MOOCs as diagnostic tools to help determine whether students should receive extra training before taking placement exams. Providing extra online tutorials before the exam might keep more students from being placed in remediation, thus saving school systems money. He also encourages policymakers to offer monetary rewards for universities that develop MOOCs (and thereby reduce tuition), noting that a similar tactic worked in the federal Race to the Top program.

At the moment, MOOCs play to the strengths of those who would succeed anyway in the information economy: People who have the discipline, will, and (likely) the previous education to navigate the “wild west” of online ed, just as they are better able to navigate our increasingly unstructured job market. It’s imperative that we improve our education system for those who aren’t as capable or as fortunate, however, and that includes improving online education—one of the cheapest and most flexible options for everyone.

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