- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2013

Massive open online courses are sweeping the globe, but some higher education leaders argue that the classes, better known as MOOCs, need to be embraced cautiously.

“I don’t hate them at all, but I do see the limitations of them,” said John Ebersole, president of Excelsior College, a nonprofit, 37,000-student institution headquartered in an Albany, N.Y., business park.

Mr. Ebersole talked about the need for less federal regulation over his sector and about the changing face of the American college student. Excelsior’s average student, for example, is 39 years old.

As higher education continues to evolve and online studies become more popular, MOOCs increasingly are held up as a revolutionary step forward. The concept is simple: a highly qualified professor offers an online “class,” for free, to anyone willing to listen. The system allows students from around the globe to learn from renowned academics, who in turn are able to reach many more people than could fit inside a traditional classroom.

Mr. Ebersole said that he sees the benefits of such an approach, but also the drawbacks. For starters, the vast majority of those who sign up for a MOOC don’t finish it.

“There’s something wrong with the system when you only have 3 percent who finish,” he said, adding that he believes his estimate is much closer to reality than the 10 percent completion figures often thrown around publicly by MOOC advocates.

“Of that 3 percent, which could still be thousands of people, how do you know if they’ve learned anything? You don’t,” Mr. Ebersole said.

Since it’s inherently difficult to measure if MOOC students truly grasp the material, it’s foolish for any institution to grant degrees based on completing the open courses, Mr. Ebersole said.

But that doesn’t mean they are worthless. Mr. Ebersole and many others think the courses can play a critical role in continuing education.

Last week, the online education company and MOOC developer Coursera announced new courses aimed at helping K-12 teachers with professional development. The University of Virginia, Johns Hopkins University, the University of California, Irvine, and other schools already have signed up as partners.

Since teachers and other paid professionals theoretically will be motivated to learn, Mr. Ebersole said, they’re ideal candidates.

He also said MOOCs can be beneficial for institutions looking to offer a “free trial” of the type of lecture students would get if they enrolled full time.

MOOCs also carry real value in the world of research and development, according to Mr. Ebersole. There’s a growing notion that perhaps the most valuable thing MOOCs can offer is a way for nonprofits and fledgling companies to connect with bright, young students willing to share their ideas for free.

The rise of Excelsior and the advent of MOOCs are two examples of how the traditional American college experience is becoming a thing of the past.

“When we talk about higher education, the mental image that comes to mind is the 18 to 24-year-old studying full time on a pristine campus with coeds sitting on the lawn reading their books. That’s not the way it is,” Mr. Ebersole said.

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