Whoever you are, whatever your SAT score and high school report card looks like, you could take a course at Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, or Johns Hopkins right this minute. These elite schools, among many others, have begun to offer open, online, not-for-credit courses to anyone who wants to take them. These are casually referred to as MOOCs, massive open online courses.
You might assume that these classes consist only of video lectures, a collection of slides with a professor’s voiceover, the equivalent of watching some informative YouTube videos. In fact, the courses are as complete as any you’d take in college. There are assigned readings to accompany every class, a syllabus, homework, and essays. Many of them even have some form of grading.
So if the only thing separating these classes from normal college-level courses are credit and money, is the only purpose of paying for courses to earn the credits? Sooner or later, some school is going to acknowledge credit from a free course. Will that open the floodgates to our entire higher education system?
Probably not. Not to diminish the impressive growth of MOOC opportunities in the past few years, but they’re not quite as revolutionary as they might seem at first. Any college course could theoretically be self-taught. Nearly every college website keeps its course catalog open to the public. There might even be a posted syllabus and required reading list. Through websites like Koofers, potential students can easily dig up old tests and practice exams. It’s not hard to find out what is being taught in a Chemistry 101 class and then teach it to yourself, if you’re willing to commit to completing the work. MOOCs make the experience more streamlined, but the knowledge gained from college courses has always been technically open to the public.
So while MOOCs will undoubtedly affect higher education in the future, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a complete overhaul of the traditional college system. College still has a very high perceived value in the work force. It’s seen, rightfully in most cases, as an important formative experience that helps define a person intellectually, professionally, and personally. A college diploma isn’t so much a document detailing the knowledge you have as it is a document saying this institute can vouch that you live up to their standards.
If MOOCs were ever to take over or replace a college education, the change wouldn’t come from the schools themselves. It would have to come from the work force. MOOCs won’t be the new college until employers, as a whole, agree that they are just as good as a college diploma. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.