Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 6, 2012

Another View: Be prudent about online courses

By the Lansing State Journal

---- — Online learning has the potential to reshape the way Americans are educated, but policy makers need to put considerable thought into how.

For example, consider the phenomenon known as "massive open online courses," or MOOCs. Universities, including Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, are thinking through how to best use this new format, which can let tens of thousands of students from around the world participate in an Internet-based course together.

Interestingly, the two schools have taken vastly different approaches to date.

MSU offered a MOOC course with specific ties to its MetroFood initiative, which is looking at new ways to grow food for the world's urban populations. The 400-student course helped create new research collaborations.

But MSU officials remain hesitant about doing MOOCs just to be among participants in the trend. That's significant, because so far almost no MOOC course work is accepted for credit by U.S. universities. (Colorado State University's global campus has agreed to offer transfer credit for a MOOC introductory class in computer science; but such arrangements so far are rare in the United States.)

At U-M, officials opted to join, one of the major purveyors of such courses. U-M officials decided that they wanted first-hand experience with the course work and an opportunity to help shape the direction of this potentially game-changing trend.

But it's a trend that requires caution. So far, MOOCs are typically free. Offering access to some of the world's pre-eminent professors for free seems generous and may help build a school's reputation. But universities have to be careful that they aren't ultimately diminishing the value they provide to students who pay tuition.

It's a delicate balancing act. Public universities that receive taxpayer funding should be most cautious about how much time and effort they put into free courses.

Colleges and universities that are involved in such offerings should consider fees and figure out how the classes fit into certification or degree programs.

Experimentation and innovation are as welcome and needed in higher education as in any field. But those experimenting with benefit of taxpayer subsidies should be very clear in their purpose and their goals.

Be bold, yes. But also be discerning.

-- Lansing State Journal