Students weigh in on value of massive open online classes

By Sam Hayes

Collegian File Photo

Hundreds of thousands of people across the world have begun to take college classes from some of the most prestigious institutions in the United States for free.

These students are taking massive open online classes (MOOC) offered by several online education companies, such as Coursera and edX.

Coursera is a for-profit company founded by Stanford University computer science professors. EdX is a nonprofit company run cooperatively by Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California Berkley.

Students can sign up for a specific number of online courses on a range of subjects, which will be taught by professors at these institutions.

Many MOOC classes require students to watch video lectures or read materials provided to them online. Then, work completed by the students is graded either by other students or machine. The grading system requires little work from professors and allows for an almost limitless class size, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported.

At the completion of the course, students who have achieved high enough marks become eligible to receive a certificate of course completion.

While it is free to study, some MOOCs, such as Coursera, charge students who want to receive a certificate of completion.  Currently, students don’t have to pay for a certificate from edX, but there are plans to change that in the future, according to its website.

College credit cannot be received for taking these courses and the certificate is not accepted as transfer credit either.

Despite students’ inability to receive credit for MOOC classes, the courses have been increasing in popularity. Coursera’s student population surpassed 1 million last month, the Chronicle reported.

The movement comes years after M.I.T.’s October 2002 launch of OpenCourseWare, where the institution gave students access to free notes and coursework online.

The long-term effects of MOOCs are not yet known, but some colleges and college students are uneasy with the possible impact they could have on higher education and the worth of their degrees.

Danny Weng, a senior Management Information Systems major at UMass, said he thinks MOOCs are an “awesome” idea and wishes he could fit one into his busy schedule.

“I can’t take one at the same time as school,” he said. “It’s just too much work.”

Weng said he thinks MOOCs can help students learn about topics outside of their fields of study.

But he also said he cannot see the free education system promoted by MOOCs replacing the traditional University system.

“The University is a business,” Weng said. “There are not going to be free credits (offered at UMass) anytime soon.”

Erika Jurlina, a junior astronomy major, agreed.

“No one is going to give you credits for free,” she said.

“I wouldn’t spend the time (to take an MOOC) unless I got credit,” Jurlina added.

She also said she believes MOOCs may cause people to overestimate their knowledge on a subject.

“People will think they know more about a subject than they really do,” she said.

Other students, such as junior English major Ben Decatur, anticipate UMass will soon join in with the growing number of schools participating in the MOOC system.

At UMass, many classes already have online components and some, such as a number of Professor Sut Jhally’s popular communications courses, even have video lectures.

Decatur said he prefers the type of human interaction in-person classes offer students, particularly the help and clarification of teaching assistants and professors.

Thirty-year-old Greenfield Community College transfer student and sociology major Stephanie Staples had never heard of MOOCs, but said she liked the concept.

“It would be good for everyone, including UMass students,” she said. “[MOOCs] are like electives, I can study things that are not pertinent to my degree, but that I think warrant scholarship.”

Staples also said she likes the idea that MOOCs can change social structure by allowing financially disadvantaged students access to Harvard-level courses.

Currently, the largest MOOCs are edX, Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy and Udemy, according to the Chronicle.

Sam Hayes can be reached at [email protected]