2011 – 2012 has seen a great proliferation in MOOCs, or massive open online courses, which made university subjects available free of charge to anyone on the internet. MOOCs are generally provided by universities, such as edX by Harvard and MIT, but can also include non-university partners, such as British Library in Futurelearn. MOOCs platforms can either be specialised (as Udacity for sciences) or provide a wide range of subjects (such as Coursera).
The defining feature of MOOCs is that their courses are free and thus provided to thousands of people. However, MOOCs platforms themselves can be for-profit (Coursera, Udacity) or non-profit (Peer-to-peer university). For-profit platforms can raise revenue in various ways, for instance by raising venture capital  or charging for verified certificates .
In a relatively short period of time MOOCs grew in massive popularity and are serving thousands and millions of users  . Some online courses have even been recommended for university credit . This prompted to question whether traditional universities have to adapt themselves to the new realities of education   and even whether they can be replaced . The question of how online courses could replace universities is open for debate as well.
*for footnotes see bibliography
The vast popularity of MOOCs can be explained by the fact that people are finding it easier to learn this way. The best feature of online learning that it can be done in the privacy of one's home, which is more convenient than having to move cities or even countries for a university degree. Moreover, online courses are inherently more flexible. Lectures can be watched and tests taken at any time a person desires (within the deadlines), unlike with scheduled lectures and tests at the traditional university. Not only this means a more personal approach to studying, it also provides people with more flexibility to manage their other commitments, such as work and childcare. Such personal and flexible approach to learning will overtake the rigidity of the traditional university.
Online courses are popular not because they are flexible, but because they provide an opportunity to expand one's knowledge on a variety of subjects. For example, the most common reason for people taking Coursera courses are professional development and lifelong learning, the latter being essentially pleasure learning . While there is nothing wrong with people taking courses to expand their knowledge or add to what they already know, it nevertheless indicates that MOOCs are not really used for furthering one's academic knowledge. This objective is and will remain the field of traditional universities.
Online courses can expand access to university education. University education is based on the idea of merit - that the brightest people should be enabled to learn - however in real life many different circumstances play a role in one's ability to attend university. The result is that lots of stellar people from less-affluent backgrounds do not even apply to the best universities due to costs and anxiety involved in leaving home. In the United States the bottom 50 percent of the income distribution comprise just 14 percent of the undergraduates at top universities . Online courses allow more bright people to go to a university by definitely removing accommodation and travel costs, and, as some predict, even by lowering or dropping tuition fees . This argument is made even stronger by inherent flexibility of online courses, which means that people can combine studies with work and family obligations better. This improves access to education for the poor within the country and in particularly for those in less developed countries, which then improves meritocracy of the university system.
MOOCs primarily reach already educated and thus privileged people. Roughly 80% of people who took Coursera courses already have a Bachelor' degree . This statistic shows that the less-advantaged do not prefer online courses over the traditional university nor do they find them more convenient to take. At the least it shows MOOCs are just reaching the same people as universities. Even if universities drop tuition fees, which does not seem likely, the argument is entirely based on the idea that poorer people would find it easier to do courses from home. However, many of the poor do not even have access to internet at home, including an estimated 100 million poor Americans , not to mention much larger numbers of poorer people from less developed countries.
Relocating to the best universities is a budgetary concern, but also family and social relations concern for many people, which prevents all the best people from even applying to universities that would suit them the best. Online courses can recruit students from anywhere in the world much easier than traditional universities can because students don't need to travel far away for the best education. This then ensures that universities have better access to the brightest people. For instance, Stanford University's online course on Artificial Intelligence enabled people from 190 countries to join, and none of students receiving a score of 100 percent where from Stanford . Improving the pool of students would automatically result in better academics, professionals and science, which would benefit the society better.
Online courses enables universities to accept virtually unlimited numbers of students regardless of presence of tuition fees. If universities keep tuition fees, it makes sense to admit more students because they are no longer limited by availability of physical space; if they drop tuition fees, they still should accept more students because their revenues would depend on how popular they are. What this means is that instead of picking just the brightest of the applying lot, universities can now accept pretty much everyone who meets the basic standard criteria. Not only this decreases the quality of professionals and academia, it decreases the value of a university degree.
Traditional Universities are forced to spend a lot on administration and facilities, such as renting and maintaining buildings and parking lots, providing student support for accommodation, renting student halls, subsiding transports costs and meals, supervising university areas and so on. Across 72 US public universities the average administrative cost was about 8% of spending with the highest, at the University of Connecticut at 17% . All these costs can be cut or abandoned all together if universities move to online teaching. There would be no need for lecture halls and student accommodation as students would just work from home, and even professors could mostly work from home. Even if some of administrative costs remain, that would still substantially increase the amount of resources to be spent entirely on teaching and research. This allows universities to improve their academic credentials and their academic output, which benefits the students and the society.
It is questionable whether universities would be able to substantially cut administrative costs and facilities. They will have to spend substantially more on IT support for running courses, as well as adapting courses for the online format. Then it is likely that universities would have to spend substantially more on hiring teaching and research assistants to manage increased numbers of students enrolled. While student accommodation support is going away, the normal academic student support for questions about studies is not, and its workloads actually increase due to higher student numbers. At the end of the day, administrative expenses just have to be spent on different administrative tasks.
One of the technical features of MOOCs is that content of courses can easily be shared between universities and learners (as content is freely downloadable). This is useful in two ways. First, people who are not earning credit from the course can have full access to educational materials, which expands knowledge of those not enrolled in the university. Second, less prestigious universities can benefit by learning how to design courses better, so they can offer better services. MOOCs even offer opportunities for universities to cooperate together to offer shared courses that would decrease duplication and increase quality of education , which would be of even greater benefit to financially stressed institutions. Shared educational resources would expand access to education even further and drive educational standards higher through university cooperation.
Though it is good for personal development opportunities to access educational material don’t mean anything in the labour market that requires verification of understanding through grading. As regards to universities cooperating; that might actually result in the same course being offered by many smaller universities, which decreases the room for free thinking and interpretation, which is an integral part of academic development . Moreover, if with MOOCs prestigious universities can accept more students, this might mean an end to many less prestigious universities altogether as they would not be able to compete. This could actually diminish access to university education for many people who cannot make the cut for the prestigious universities.
At the moment some MOOC platforms are non-profit, while even for-profit ones do not pay universities, nor do universities pay MOOC platforms, they might only divide revenue if a revenue stream appears . This essentially means that MOOCs have to rely on traditional financial models of universities to survive – they need the universities to provide materials and the academics and traditional models that are based on the fact that lots of students do not take online courses. However, MOOCs might undermine traditional university funding. For instance, Princeton professor Mitchell Duneier withdrew from Coursera claiming that states use MOOCs as a justification to withdraw state funding from universities . Moreover, some MOOCs consider providing chargeable courses for credit but for a substantially lower price (around 100 dollars for a course), which might draw students away from traditional universities further undermining their existence . This means a depletion of universities financial sources that MOOCs themselves rely on. At the moment there is no way for MOOCs to replace traditional university learning.
It is false to assume that MOOCs platforms would be the only or even the main way to provide university courses. The Open University uses its own resources for online and distance learning. This proves that, given advantages of online learning, universities can switch to digital learning themselves without any intermediaries. This also means that there is no reason for states to cut funding for universities as university learning would simply go digital, everything else staying the same. Even though some universities at the moment offer online courses for credit that are very cheap, these are not degrees, and it is unlikely to imagine that universities would offer cheap online degrees that would threaten their own existence.
With online courses, unlike with actual tests and lectures, there is no way to ensure the person is not cheating on the other side of the screen. There is no way to ensure that essays and papers are written by people who will be getting degrees, and especially that tests and examinations are taken by the people who will be getting the degrees. But even if they are the same people, there is no way to prevent cheating during tests and examinations, as people can just have the cheat sheets in front of them and there are no supervisors to stop them from doing so. The crucial point about university degrees is that they ensure that the person is the professional. With online courses, that is not possible, which undermines the whole idea of the university degree.
It is highly unlikely to believe that people can easily find other people to go through the degree for them on the massive scale, no matter how dedicated of a friend that person is. And even if that friend or a relative is a professional in the degree area, it does not mean they could successfully pass the degree as universities update their examinations and degree materials yearly. Besides, there are ways to prevent such fraud. For instance, Coursera charges fees for certificates that verify a person's identity by using a webcam while the person is taking the course . In terms of having essays and papers written by someone else, this problem is no different from the traditional universities, as they cannot easily verify that the person themselves wrote those either.
Online courses impair live communication between students and professors and among students. For instance, Coursera professors ask students not to email them because due to high numbers of students taking the course meaning they cannot reply . Moreover, due to pre-recorded lectures, there is no option of asking professors questions. There are no live class discussions. Sure students could email each other, but it is more difficult to freely communicate with people you do not know and never met. It is also difficult to imagine that, given their numbers, students could get personal feedback on their progress from professors themselves, and not, say, teaching assistants (as Coursera does) or even from computers. Lack of personal feedback and engagement with professors and other students in discussions of the material decreases the quality of education.
It is not true that online communications cannot be as good as real life communications. MOOCs platforms already are addressing student and professor involvement via such means as discussions in internet forums, Google hang-outs etc. This communication can be expanded to other means that the internet provides, such as Skype chats, conference calls, instant messaging, and even broadcasting live podcasts where people can ask questions online. Plus, it is not true that students would not be able to communicate among themselves given the possibilities of social media. Sure, they probably won't meet other students in real life, but that does not mean they cannot try to get to know each other online, especially since this is the only option. The internet has the capability to promote inclusive dialogue between students and professors, this capability just is not used to the fullest at the moment.
University is not just a place for learning. A big part of student life is participating in societies and other activities, such as sports, debating, political, philosophical or other interest groups. These provide them with opportunity to explore their talents, do the things they like and also build connections that could be useful after the university. But you cannot do most of these things online as they, unlike studying, are not based on studying materials you can upload. This is why students with online courses would be deprived of these opportunities to develop themselves, build useful connections and get ideas for their further life. This is important for society too as students historically have often been an important political and social actor (e.g. see 1968 France, Athens Polytechnic uprising etc.).
While there would no longer be a traditional university campus to carry out these activities, it does not mean these activities would disappear. Given the popularity of societies with students, it is expected that other platforms would spring up to fill in the gap. For instance, student clubs can be established in cities or regions, provided either by for-profit entrepreneurs (as in MOOCs platforms) or self-managed by students themselves. The only difference would be that these new platforms might no longer be affiliated to a university but rather be geographically based. This, however, is not a bad development as students would still have an opportunity to join societies. Students can easily be recruited into them via social media and the internet. Maybe not every student will have an option of the society they'd like to join, but that is also the case in lots of traditional universities.
For many students leaving for a university is a passage to an independent life, as they often move out out of their parents’ home and even their countries. This means they have to start learning or practically using lots of skills of independent adults, such as financial management, cooking, being crime-aware, networking, and solving communication problems on their own. With online courses students do not leave homes, and essentially do not start using these skills. This takes away an important practice in being an independent adult before the real life, which might leave students less equipped for the real life.
This is exactly as saying that people who did not go to universities are not independent enough. We know this to be wrong in practice and this is so because independence is not obtained in a fixed set of circumstances. There are different ways to foster independence (e.g. part-time work, personal relationships parents don’t necessarily know about, etc.) that are also very much dependent on the persons' character rather than their circumstances. Besides, rites of passages are a subjective and culturally defined – if people no longer leave for universities, a new type of passage into independence is likely be constructed.
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