Equitable and expansive access

Get the complete book Thinking Strategically about MOOCs: The Role of Massive Open Online Courses in the College and University at Amazon in print or kindle version. 

          One of the more intriguing and marketable aspects of MOOCs is their potential for allowing all students to enroll in highly valued courses and study with distinguished faculty from the most elite schools in the world. This is built into the MOOC program offered by Coursera, for example, which is contractually limited to partnering with elite universities. This MOOC model affords unprecedented access to talented professors at prestigious universities.

Closely related to the potential of studying with prestigious faculty is the possibility of creating equitable, worldwide access to education. A new era of globalization is looming, and MOOCs may be a big part of it. American colleges and universities have long sought to bring a global perspective to their students, but they have done so in fairly traditional ways.  Study abroad and international exchange programs are typically constrained by institutional, programmatic, and geographic boundaries (not to mention funding and support). By contrast, the vision of MOOCs convening cadres of students from all over the world to share diverse perspectives and learn from one another in a massive, open, and collegial space seems to offer great promise for education.

MOOCs, by definition and design, are available for free to anyone with the wherewithal to connect to the Internet.  Although that is by no means a universal audience, the capacity to connect continues to increase.  The rapid deployment of smart cell phones even in nations with rudimentary Internet access, and the concomitant re-development of web resources to be mobile-device compliant, further increases the potential reach of MOOCs.

As Duke University’s Cathy Davidson says in “If We Profs Don’t Reform Higher Ed, We’ll Be Re-Formed (and we won’t like it),” there are far too few colleges and universities and far too many students with academic aspirations for the current system to accommodate them all. In a world which increasingly clamors for an educated global populace with the critical analytical skills that college education provides, we are asking too much of the existing education infrastructure. MOOCs have the potential to address this burgeoning challenge.

In India, ninety-eight percent of the five hundred thousand hopefuls whose academic standing qualifies them to take the entrance exams to the Indian Institutes of Technology are rejected. Ironically, many of those rejected qualify them for their second choice: elite schools in the United States. Similarly, Peking University has a one-half of one percent acceptance rate, as compared with Harvard’s nearly six percent acceptance rate.[2]

MOOCs can make an emerging form of higher education available to many who are excluded because of space limitations or inability to pay. Most of these potential students would never become a matriculated student on a college campus in the United States (or anywhere else, for that matter). As Davidson notes, MOOCs “offer a form of education to those for whom education is off limits.” In MOOCs there lies hope for a system that has the capacity to connect elite educators with eager learners who have access to few—or no—alternatives.

Next: Analytics, assessment, and improved educational outcomes.

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