THE BLOG

Moving Beyond MOOCS

04/21/2015 05:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 21, 2015

Since 1985, the cost of a college education has risen three times faster than the rate of inflation. A 2013 Huffington Post poll showed that a majority of Americans -- 62 percent -- believe they cannot afford a public college education. Many of those who do get a degree are saddled with burdensome debt. According to a 2012 Bloomberg report student debt now exceeds consumer debt in the United States.

The rising cost of higher education, combined with new technology, has inspired innovations that were unthinkable a few years ago. The most significant development has been the proliferation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS). These classes offer a remarkable opportunity for people to learn from the greatest professors. Thanks to widespread access to broadband, people from around the world can learn about philosophy from a professor at Harvard, or sit in on an art history class at Yale.

For a brief period, MOOCS were all the craze. Then reality set in.

A handful of problems arose. For one thing, the technology for most MOOCS is primitive. Most use a single camera stationed at the back of a large lecture hall. Those watching at home feel as if they are eavesdropping on someone else's class. (They are!) There is also no pedagogical support: no quizzes, no assignments, no opportunity for engagement with the professor or with other students. The biggest problem with MOOCs, however, is that they cannot offer transferable college credit. While the major players are experimenting with various methods, from badges to certificates of completion, in the world of college education transferable credits are the coin of the realm.

While MOOCS and Silicon Valley start-ups have garnered most of the buzz in the online space, it's the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar universities (the ones MOOCS were supposed to put out of business) that have pioneered the most viable and innovative approaches to distance learning. Oddly enough, they may also hold out the best hope for lowering college costs. Penn State World Campus, the online campus of Penn State University, now offers more than 100 online degrees. Other mainstream universities, such as University of Massachusetts, Boston University, and Drexel University, have created robust online programs. Most significantly, Georgia Institute of Technology established an online master's degree in computer science that costs a fraction of its on-campus program.

Critics charge that it is impossible to foster online the same atmosphere that exists in a classroom. I have to confess, after spending 30 years teaching in a traditional setting, that I shared this concern. But my experience this year teaching an online class created as part of a partnership between the University of Oklahoma and HISTORY (previously known as "The History Channel") has changed my mind.

The class, the second half of the standard American history survey taken by hundreds of thousands of students every year, covers the period from 1865 to the present. Some states, and many schools, require students to take at least one semester of the two-semester survey for graduation.

It has been a rewarding and eye-opening experience. HISTORY created 16-hours of professionally produced lectures complete with video clips. The lectures, broken down into 5-7 minute blocks, look more like mini-documentaries than standard lectures. The university's state-of-the art platform, developed by the Oklahoma-based company, NextThought, allows for easy interaction among students. The platform contains a social network function that encourages students to respond to questions that I pose, while also allowing them to respond to post from their peers. The platform requires students to interact and it carefully monitors their level of engagement -- powerful tools that do not exist in the traditional classroom.

In many ways, we have a romanticized view of college. Popular portrayals of a typical classroom show a handful of engaged students sitting attentively around a small seminar table while their Harrison Ford-like professor shares their wisdom about the world. We all know the real classroom is very different. Especially in big introductory classes -- American history, U.S. government, human psychology, etc. -- hundreds of disinterested, and often distracted, students cram into large impersonal lecture halls, passively taking notes, occasionally glancing up at the clock waiting for the class to end. And it's no more engaging for the professor. Usually we can't tell whether students are taking notes or updating their Facebook page. For me, everything past the ninth row was distance learning. A good online platform puts every student in the front row.

Innovative experiments like Georgia Tech's master's program and the OU/HISTORY partnership represent the next generation in the evolution of online learning. Unlike MOOCS, they are not free, but they are less expensive than traditional on-campus classes. (OU charges $500 for the three-credit credit class). The OU/HISTORY class allows students to transfer credit back to their home institution, using it as a building block toward a degree. Just as important, as more universities expand their online offerings they will generate competition -- competition that could lead to even better technology, a more engaging learning experience for students, and lower costs.