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A Call to Clarify the Intention of MOOCs

On Monday, Cornell launched its first Massive Open Online Course — ASTRO2290x: Relativity and Astrophysics — for several hundred viewers. Cornell initially announced MOOC offerings with the intention of providing everyone with the chance to learn from an Ivy League institution for free. However, Cornell has never articulated a set plan to attract, retain and maintain the quality of education for these virtual students. The University continuously markets MOOCs as a step toward accessible education, but in light of criticism from some national experts and the debate over the initial success, we ask Cornell to concretely define the proposed plan for the future sustainability of the program and to identify how this program will benefit Cornell students.

One of the main concerns with MOOCs, as highlighted by Prof. David Chernoff, astronomy, who is teaching Cornell’s first MOOC, is that the online platform the University uses to host the MOOCs, edX, does not allow for face-to-face interaction between professors and students. He noted that the “give-and-take” of a normal class is harder to simulate in an online session. This one-way communication remains a concern for the future success of the MOOCs program, as many students cite that interactions with professors are one aspect that they enjoy about classroom learning. We are concerned about the number of viewers who will continue to watch the MOOCs once the novelty wears off and the professor has no way to motivate them to stay.

In an editorial from Oct. 3, 2012, we acknowledged that, “MOOCs simply allow more people to engage with higher education.” We still believe this is a valid reason to implement MOOCs. However, given the fact that only 10 percent of those who enroll in a course usually earn a certificate of completion, we believe that the University still has a ways to go before it is truly able to provide learning to the general public that is Cornell-caliber. We believe that it is necessary for the University to make sure that MOOCs will advance the mission of Cornell without diminishing the experience in Ithaca.

While the University has noted how MOOCs will benefit non-Cornellians, the administration has not yet outlined how MOOCs will benefit Cornell students. Skorton has previously said that he believes that these MOOCs will “enhance pedagogy on our campuses,” but has not given a concrete plan as to how this will occur. We wonder, are MOOCs created for the general public who are interested in learning for learning’s sake? Or are they meant for the students who pay to attend the University itself? The answer is currently unclear. It seems that without these major clarifications, the University is using these MOOCs to boost its reputation, not to benefit the students who attend it.

We think that offering MOOCs is a worthwhile experiment for the University, and that supplying professors to teach non-Cornellians is a noble cause in the quest to make education more accessible. However, given the concerns about the success and sustainability of the program, we are reserving judgement on the benefits of MOOCs. We question how comprehensive the University’s plan to educate both Cornellians and those taking MOOCS is, and request more information from Cornell regarding their long-term vision for these online courses.

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