MOOC Education and Degrees: A Path to Affordable Education

It's been a while since I have written anything about education. As many of you know, I've spent a good portion of my career in Higher Education, and starting next week I will be once again in the private sector as a corporate technical trainer. In reviewing my resume and past experience, I started to reflect on something very dear to me: my own education.

College education is very expensive. My BA in History from the University of Utah over a decade ago (has it really been that long??) cost me close to $10.000 without housing costs. My MAED from University of Phoenix cost me more than twice that. While I don't regret getting my education, earning my degrees (and yes, I did say EARN), the cost was very high.

Today, education is even more expensive. Tuition costs have one up an estimated 26 percent in the last decade for undergraduate education alone (based on National Center for Education Statistics numbers), and will continue to increase. Students vie for placement in top schools if they can afford it, or at least choose the one they can come close to affording. Whole industries have grown up around making that critical decision on which school to attend, with the idea that the school, not the student, determines the success of the graduate.

Schools are not immune to the troubles of the need for higher education. More students enroll every year, requiring more buildings to construct, more grants issued in their behalf, more donors courted to match government funds, and ultimately less parking for everyone. And with a struggling economy, the government grants fewer dollars to schools. It's a situation that can be untenable for many schools as they search for a way to get more tuition dollars without incurring additional expenses.

In the past, schools have looked to going online with their courses. It sounds tempting, knowing that students will be at home, work, or on a sunny beach (if you believe their advertising), and therefore not in a facility that costs money. But there are hidden costs, such as the preparation of the materials (more detailed with online offerings), technology costs, and maintenance of the system. And, of course, you have to sell the concept to your faculty. To control some of those costs, schools have even moved their online synchronous offerings to virtual reality environments such as Second Life with the instructor teaching in front of a classroom full of virtual avatars.

Then came the introduction of iTunes U, and finally MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Momentum started when top universities like Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and UC Berkeley started offering their classes online for free, giving students the chance to access their own work and receive a certificate of attendance if they complete the whole course. The appeal was immediate, and MOOC interest has been huge as a method of self-improvement and informational education. Yet there is still that desire to get a degree, or at least see the learning recognized, as something that is resume-worthy.

Personally, I think the answer is simple: credit by exam. Universities could see a huge influx of "graduates", testing dollars, and minimal costs by providing degrees through exams. Students can show what they know, demonstrate their knowledge to the rigors required by the University, and pay a fraction of the tuition for that class. In return, the University can provide the certificate or degree, or just the credit , to the student without a lot of the administrative overhead required for a normal degree. Costs would go down, graduation rates could (potentially) go up, and at the mutual benefits of the University as a whole and the students attending.

So what would be the problems with this model? I see a few

  1. Students would need to be dedicated to learning, not just taking exams. They would need to demonstrate their knowledge in a very real environment. Sometimes this is difficult to convey through a global testing mechanism like Prometric.
  2. Faculty would need salary funding from other sources than tuition. Credit by exam courses wouldn't replace in-class courses, as some students just can't do it otherwise, but as it gained saturation of the market, the need for faculty on staff is less pressing.
  3. Testing costs would need to be realistic, making it worth the student's while, and paying for all costs along the way. That includes developing the tests (often done by faculty and specialists), deploying them properly, etc.
  4. Tests would need to take into account multiple sources of information. University faculty has the benefit of knowing what they offer in their course, and which points to test for their exam. If someone is taking a course from say, Stanford, but takes the test from say, University of Florida, you can't make that same assumption. How would differences be reconciled? That means human reviews of all tests, if not of all disputed questions within a test. That can be very problematic.

Still, these problems are not insurmountable, making the MOOC method of learning a viable method of extending one's education and resume without having to take time off work or go into mountains of debt to do it.