12/05/2012 04:15 pm ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

The Massive Problem That MOOCs May Help Clear Up

There are millions of working Americans who started college but didn't complete their bachelor's degree. After leaving, many took jobs in which they've succeeded, but now they can't move higher up the ladder. They're frustratingly close to improving their lives, which would help not only them -- the median income of a college graduate is 60 percent higher than a person without a degree -- but in turn help our economy.

So, why aren't these folks going back to school? The two most common reasons I hear are cost and the difficulty of fitting classes into their busy lives.

I believe a solution is emerging.

One of the most interesting recent developments in higher education is the appearance of MOOCs, that inelegant acronym for Massive Open Online Courses. At websites like, or edX you can find entire college courses -- including presentations and interactive exercises -- taught by professors from America's elite universities: Harvard , MIT, Stanford, Princeton, and others -- all for free.

Imagine a world where all the very best courses were posted online for free. Why would anyone pay tuition? One answer is: Because they need guidance through the material, support in their efforts to understand it, and certification that they have actually mastered what they studied.

What's the role of a teacher if the best courses are there for the taking? I think it shifts from conveying information to insuring understanding. Fewer lectures and more one-on-one and small-group work.

I had an epiphany several decades ago when I was helping start a weekend college for adult learners at a university in the Twin Cities. The problem was how to guarantee that the same learning happened in the 24 1/2-hour weekend college format as would happen in the day school, where there were 60 contact hours. My solution: Tape my lectures and assign them as homework. I did this in a closet, with a cassette tape recorder (did I mention it was the early '80s?). I had some anxiety, fearing the students would complain about paying tuition for recorded lectures.

They loved it.

"I can listen to these tapes after my children are in bed," they said. And, "If I don't understand something, I can back up and replay that section."

I learned two important lessons: First, class time doesn't have to be spent listening to lectures. Assign the lectures as homework, and spend class time otherwise. This was an early version of the "flipped classroom" that's gaining traction among educators. Second, seat time is not such a sacred cow. I was able to cover the same amount of material whether I was with students for 60 hours or for less than half that time. In the end, credit was assigned for demonstrated competency, not for time on the clock.

Fast-forward, as it were, to 2012. Several institutions are working hard to solve the problem of degree completion. Western Governors University, launched just 15 years ago by a consortium of states, has a curriculum built from the ground up on the competencies associated with baccalaureate-level learning. Their design works particularly well for adult students, many of whom have achieved at least some of these competencies through work. On the east coast, Excelsior College, a spin-off of the SUNY system, is partnering with Pearson Education, a textbook company, to offer a full menu of credit-by-examination opportunities. Here in the Midwest, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, under the leadership of Stephen Rosenstone, has a great track record of working closely with private colleges to lower the barriers to the transfer of credit between institutions.

Faculty at my own institution, The College of St. Scholastica, are creating a new path that turns disruptive technology to our students' advantage. The essence is that college credit is awarded for demonstrated competency rather than seat time. We create pathways for adult learners to bring life experience, previous college credit, and prior learning -- whether from books or MOOCs -- and have them assessed through methods determined by our faculty experts. Some St. Scholastica courses -- for example in religious studies -- are still required, but the majority of a degree for some learners can be earned by credit transfer and credit for prior learning.

The emphasis on assessment guarantees close personal contact with faculty members and "completion coaches," -- integrating, for example, additional work in ethics with already demonstrated competency in business. At the same time we can lower the overall cost of a degree, because students pay a lower rate for several one-on-one sessions with a faculty member than they would for an entire semester of class attendance. Some students in CSS Complete can earn a degree for about $25,000 -- less than the cost of one year of our traditional enrollment.

Our effort, and others that will arise as peer colleges come to market with their own models, bode well for working adults who want to get their bachelor's degree.