07/04/2013 02:54 pm ET Updated Sep 03, 2013

Why MOOCs Miss the Point With Online Learning

With the rising costs of college, many students find it difficult to obtain a quality, affordable education. In response, numerous higher education institutions are embracing online education as one way to create access for nontraditional students to achieve their dream of a college degree, regardless of financial means and life demands.

A recent article in The New Yorker speaks to online learning as a harbinger of higher education's future, which resonates for many in the college community. The problem, however, is that the article praises MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as a gold standard for online learning. This concept belies the reality of these self-led educational experiences, and this assertion by a publication with such an esteemed reputation is damaging to the public's perception of "best practices" in online learning. I recently heard a presenter at MIT state that he has found those with the most enthusiasm for MOOCs have never taken part in one. Mr. Tom Freidman, I am talking to you!

My colleague Dr. Mika Nash, an academic dean and associate professor in the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College and online education expert, helps me sort out the confusion behind MOOCs.

Jayson: Though MOOCs are already a growing force in the online sphere, they are not yet necessarily credible modes of higher education. Why aren't MOOCs a good representation of online learning?
Mika: There is this perception that anything that happens online that is in any way related to learning is, de facto, "online learning." The Internet (i.e., "online") is a tool that can be used to discover information, solve problems, and move us to new places in terms of our understanding of a topic or issue. That said, just because learning is taking place doesn't mean these tools provide what we have come to see as quality education.

Online education necessarily involves learning, but there is more to it than that. An online course denotes a teacher who is present and students who are moving toward the same outcomes. The journey includes an understanding of associated competencies and learning products that are arrived at through thoughtful and consistently high quality discussion and meaningful assessment. Online education is designed for credit-seeking students (those moving toward a degree or certificate) and there is an expectation of faculty engagement and interaction that is simply not required of someone leading a MOOC.

There is an investment in outcomes in an online course, both for the faculty members and for students, in that (at our institution) there is a constant awareness of quality of interaction and of relevant and meaningful engagement with the course content. At the end of the course, students are evaluated on what they know and they, in turn, evaluate the faculty member on his or her performance. Accountability exists for everyone involved in an online course, and as a result, the persistence rate is significantly higher than it is for MOOCs.

Jayson: Major news outlets joining in the conversation on MOOCs have great power to shape the public's view of their role in education, and not all of this talk is helpful in cultivating a solid online educational atmosphere. How is The New Yorker and the current media narrative in general doing a disservice to online learning?
Mika: There seems to be an ongoing conflation in the media of MOOCs with online education. An excellent MOOC is, as yet, a rare find, and the attrition rates in MOOCs remain unacceptably high. Depending upon whose figures you believe, only between 6.8 and 10 percent of students complete MOOCs, sending an unmistakably strong message to both builders and purveyors of these courses and should raise a red flag for anyone who is seeking to earn credit through one of these courses.

Additionally, just a select few use anything other than automated grading for their assessments, further underscoring the message to students that despite the thousands who may be on the roster, they are utterly alone in the classroom.

In the typical high quality online course, completion ranges from around 80-90 percent at the course level. The research seems to indicate that students want the accountability, the "managerial oversight," as Eliot Masie calls it. There is a reason to stay engaged, and they are reminded of this reason every time they sign into their course and there is a paper returned with meaningful feedback or an email from their instructor with a response to a question.

MOOCs are concerned with a single area of study (i.e., introduction to computer programming, world history from 1300 to present, statistics) and giving students a way to gain this information without a large financial investment and the opportunity to dip in and out as works for them. Online education is about degree completion, moving students toward their next professional goal, offering a trajectory for personal and professional success.

Jayson: Talking about MOOCs and online learning has the power to change the scope and affordability of the college experience for many students. What are the economic and educational ramifications of this discussion?
Mika: It is too soon for us to be talking about any of these new initiatives as the silver bullet for what's wrong in education. There is the sense that MOOCs offer a kind of revolution in higher education based solely on the fact that they are free and that we know we are experiencing something of a bubble in terms of the cost of college.

But here is where the argument is flawed. The premise is that you are paying for the same thing you might otherwise get for free, but you are not. There are few things that are equal between a MOOC and high quality online education. You are paying for an engaged faculty member, who is working with you toward course completion. You are paying for meaningful feedback on assessments and documented growth in a higher level of understanding about a topic. You are paying to learn alongside students who all exhibit relatively the same investment in the learning experience as you, and who will likely be there tomorrow to respond to your discussion post. You are paying for an administration that is committed to your course completion because they are accountable for your success. You are paying for content that is part of a larger whole; this course is but one along a journey toward a degree or certificate.

And finally, you are paying for credit, which sounds base and almost crass to speak of, but it's significant, because at the end of it all, you will have something that can be applied toward virtually any other academic goal you have. The credit comes as a result of everything else you are paying for.

A MOOC serves a purpose -- no one can argue that. But it does not yet serve the purpose of high-quality online education, and until it does, conflating the two only serves to highlight a deeply flawed premise, which gets us nowhere. Jayson and I have seen, throughout our years in higher education, that quality online learning is developed over a period of time, and not overnight.

Jayson: True online education means an increased investment of time and finances, which pay more dividends in the long run. If we want to see a continued uptick in our economy, we must do more in terms of providing a quality education. At this time, too much is unknown for MOOCs to be a sustainable solution for online education success.

This subject is too important to embrace a herd mentality over a new trend. Remember, a vision without execution is a mirage, and action without vision is running in place. If we want students to go somewhere with online learning, we need to focus on best practices, not silver bullets. While MOOCs should and will remain a part of the online learning discussion, we need a better path to the destination of quality education.

Jayson M. Boyers is the managing director of the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, a private institution that offers bachelor's and master's degrees in professionally-focused programs balanced by an interdisciplinary core curriculum.

Dr. Mika Nash is academic dean and associate professor in the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College. She has worked in education since 1991 and in online education for the past 10 years.