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Apodaca: Questions surround online college courses

March 02, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

Surprise, surprise. Online education is running into some bumps on the road to revolution.

If there was any doubt that this would be the case, it was confirmed by a recent episode at UC Irvine that involved a professor quitting an online class, saying he wouldn't compromise his standards. The professor, who taught an extension class in microeconomics offered through the Coursera organization, apparently was frustrated by attempts to get students to obtain and read the textbook.

It would be tempting to view this incident as proof that the online model doesn't work and never will. It would seem to confirm critics' views that computer-based learning programs are inherently inferior and pose too many unworkable problems to ever become the vital component of our education system that advocates envision.

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But just as it's premature to expect an overnight renaissance in education due to online offerings, it's also wrong to assume defeat.

To be sure, there are problems with online education, both in the K-12 universe and at the college level. For now, let's look at the issues with online college classes, many of which are now offered through the suddenly ubiquitous massive open online courses model.

MOOCs, as they are known, are the controversial new rock stars of higher education, the Internet-based classes that are open to anyone, anywhere. A growing number of top universities have signed on to offer MOOC classes for free, or for a minimal fee, allowing students to watch recorded lectures online.

Although many MOOC courses don't qualify for college credit, colleges increasingly are looking at providing opportunities for students to complete at least some of their requirements through these and other online classes.

Coursera, founded by a couple of Stanford professors, is one of a handful of MOOC providers — including Udacity and edX — that are experiencing phenomenal growth. But along with the heady growth, questions and issues have quickly emerged.

A recent New York Times editorial, for instance, contended that a "dirty secret" of MOOCs is that they're "not very effective," and claimed that a 10% completion rate is standard. Another op-ed piece, also citing a supposed 90% attrition rate from some online courses, suggested that MOOCs are a viable option for highly skilled, motivated people, but don't work for struggling students who need face-to-face contact.

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