Duke launched its first online course Monday as part of a pilot project in conjunction with Coursera, an online education company. Duke will be joining a small but growing number of top universities offering massive open online courses. MOOCs differ from traditional online courses in that they have unlimited enrollment: Any student can sign up, for no cost presently, to take the course. Fancier MOOCs even boast social networking functions such as discussion boards and Q&As that facilitate virtual interaction.
Many are heralding MOOCs as the future of higher education. However, we should be wary of overestimating their value. While they provide real benefits to students and educators, MOOCs will never completely be able to replace the experience of the traditional classroom. For one, they teach certain subjects better than others. One can easily imagine subjects heavy in facts and technical skills, such as mathematics or biology, to be taught over MOOCs more effectively than discussion-based subjects like literature. Perhaps that is why the first Duke course on Coursera is bioelectricity instead of, say, an introduction to Jane Austen. This is not to say that creating high-quality humanities MOOCs is impossible, just that it is considerably more difficult.
This hints at an even larger problem concerning interpersonal interactions over MOOC platforms. While some MOOCs do offer discussion boards, we do not believe that MOOCs will be able to provide the face time that is essential to the most profound of learning experiences. Furthermore, this lack of personal interaction again underscores that students can gain factual information from MOOCs, but may not develop more intangible critical thinking skills.
Finally, the ascendance of MOOCs will likely bring dangerous incentives to monetize online education. While MOOC enrollment currently is free and unlimited, it is easy to imagine a future where credit or certificates can be given out to people who pay for and complete MOOCs. This is troublesome on several levels. First, the accountability present in traditional online courses, where assignments and participation are monitored is absent in MOOCs. Giving credit without proper assessment would not only dilute a Duke degree but fails to provide MOOC students a complete and quality education. Second, MOOCs may attract lower-income students who turned to cheaper alternatives to attending a two- or four-year college. Doling out shoddy credits to these students is wrong, evoking the problems surrounding fraudulent online for-profit university operations.
Rather, Duke’s MOOCs should remain completely separate from credit-giving online courses. MOOCs can serve as a valuable supplement, but not substitute for the classic liberal arts experience. They can provide the typical Duke student the opportunity to gain a basic understanding of an interesting subject he otherwise would not have time to take. In the wake of the Intellectual Climate Committee’s recommendations for facilitating a more engaging intellectual atmosphere, MOOCs—with their flexibility and convenience—can be effective in encouraging learning for learning’s sake. Quality and accessibility should remain high priorities for Duke in its new Coursera venture. MOOCs are a useful tool in expanding Duke’s reach, earning the title of higher education’s hot new thing. However, they should not be seen as an alternative to higher education itself.
Correction: This editorial has been corrected to reflect the fact that Duke's bioelectricity MOOC has a discussion board. The Chronicle regrets the error.