- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Louis Bloomfield is accustomed to speaking to classrooms of 25 or 30 students, but now he is preparing a syllabus for a crowd so massive that it wouldn’t be out of place at a Justin Bieber concert.

The University of Virginia physics professor has jumped head-first into the brave new world of Massive Open Online Courses, more commonly known as MOOCs, that supporters claim — and skeptics fear — is on the brink of revolutionizing the way postsecondary education is conducted.

Mr. Bloomfield and his UVa. colleagues, along with academics from around the world, must adjust their curricula to serve classes where as many as 60,000 “students” are enrolled.

The open online courses are seen as the next step in distance learning, an increasingly popular option in postsecondary education.

Although MOOCs typically don’t offer college credit, they allow scholars such as Mr. Bloomfield to share their knowledge with an unlimited number of students, whether they be on campus or halfway around the globe. In addition to dozens of top-tier American universities, including Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, schools in Canada, Mexico, Europe, China, Singapore, Japan and Australia also have jumped on the MOOC bandwagon.

“Academics don’t really like change, but change is coming because of technology, money, the whole works,” Mr. Bloomfield said. “This isn’t classroom teaching. It’s like low-budget television.”

Mr. Bloomfield, who earned his doctorate in physics from Stanford, has been teaching at Virginia since 1985. He will begin offering his introductory physics class — called “How Stuff Works I” — as a six-week MOOC starting Monday.

The expansion of MOOCs has been driven largely by companies such as edX and Coursera, which bills itself as a “social entrepreneurship company” that partners with universities to offer free courses anywhere on the planet. Scholars from the Berklee College of Music, the University of Michigan, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and about 30 other institutions partner with the company to offer more than 200 classes.

Critics within and outside the academic world have raised questions about the classes, especially their lack of cost. They worry that free online courses will, as has happened in print media and other industries, undercut the traditional financing model for colleges and lead to university closings and an overall decline in higher education.

They also are concerned about how students will be graded for their work, whether students will take the courses seriously and with how much control instructors truly have over classes that number in the tens of thousands.

Quality control

An apparent lack of quality control led Richard A. McKenzie, an emeritus professor at the University of California at Irvine’s business school, to quit teaching his Coursera MOOC.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Mr. McKenzie appeared to be frustrated with students who would not buy or read assigned texts.

“I will not cave on my standards. If I did, any statement of accomplishment will not be worth the digits they are printed on,” he wrote in statements posted to the class website last week.

Classes also have come under fire for being poorly organized and controlled.

Story Continues →