September 18, 2012

Moving Cornell Toward MOOCs

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The role of the trustees is generally not to deal with the day to day administration of Cornell, but instead to look out for long-term opportunities and threats. This article will deal with that kind of challenge, one that in 20 years time could cause Cornell to be a radically different place. And the threat has a ridiculous sounding name — MOOCs.

For those who took Psych 101 with Professor Maas, you had the unique and perhaps intimidating experience of taking a course with 1,600 others. Now imagine being in a course with 100 times as many students. Or to put it another way, take every person who ever took a Professor Maas course in his 48 years of teaching, make them retake it with their spouse or partner and add another 30,000 people.

That was the experience for the 160,000 students who signed up for Professor Sebastian Thrun’s artificial intelligence course last year. Thrun is a former Stanford professor who offered the first wildly successful MOOC — Massive Open Online Course — in which the material from his Stanford class was transferred to the internet, allowing him to teach tens of thousands of students from 190 different countries at one time.

Granted, only 22,000 people finished the course, but that is still enough to fill Schoellkopf. And more importantly, it started a flurry of activity around online higher educational offerings that has the possibility to fundamentally change how most people receive a college education.

MOOCs are an exciting concept. Professors record videos of their lessons which can be watched at any time. Tests are either multiple choice or let students grade each other, allowing for expedient grading regardless of how many students enroll. The first MOOC was in 2008, but they have quickly expanded since then. Coursera, a company started by two Stanford professors, taught 43 courses and got 680,000 registered students in its first year, and is offering over 100 new courses this fall.

There have been many attempts to move education online, but this most recent iteration has an impressive group of backers. For example, Minerva is attempting to create an “online Ivy” quality of education, by recruiting some of the best professors in each field to contribute courses. The chair of its advisory board is none other than former Harvard President (and United States Treasury Secretary) Larry Summers.

This movement is making brick-and-mortar universities nervous, for they fear increased competition for students. The most obvious market for these courses is international. Only 6.7 percent of people in the world over the age of 15 have a college degree. As countries continue to develop, the demand for education will outstrip the ability for many to travel to a prestigious international university, making online courses immeasurably attractive.

But online education may even compete for American students. Imagine being able to choose from taking courses, albeit remotely, from the very best in every discipline, for less than half the cost of a traditional university. While some students may value the residential experience, many may doubt that living in a dorm room is worth nearly $40,000 a year, especially if they feel that the education they receive online is from more prestigious professors.

Of course, MOOCs are still in their infancy. No one suggests that within five years every university will be virtual. However, these developments certainly have the capability of completely overhauling what a college education looks like.

Cornell ventured online in 2000, with the launch of eCornell. The for-profit subsidiary provides certificate programs and professional development courses, but not academic credit. Further, eCornell only has offerings from four colleges: ILR, Engineering, Hotel and Johnson.

By contrast, Harvard, MIT and Berkeley recently joined forces to create edX, a platform to deliver their courses online for free. Coursera has partnered with Princeton, Stanford, Penn, UVA, Duke and many others. Though the move to online courses is still young, Cornell may already be behind.

MOOCs and other forms of online education have their flaws. It is difficult to check for cheating, for example. Cornell also needs to worry about undermining their own on-campus courses. But the potential upside is too large to ignore.

Of course, the most important players in this decision are the faculty members. The role of the faculty is to determine curriculum and standards for academic credit. No proposal for moving online can go forward without them. In fact, the most successful online projects will be those that are led and designed by the very people teaching them.

However, Cornell can no longer afford to wait patiently on the side while our competitors expand their online presence. No one knows what the future of MOOCs will look like, but most now believe that the future of education will include online components. If Cornell wants to play a role in this future, it needs to start investing now.

Alex Bores is the undergraduate student-elected trustee and a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at awb78@cornell.edu. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Alex Bores