05/07/2013 01:16 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2013

Crowdsourcing for Credit

A recent series in the New York Times highlights online education, the challenges in offering high quality courses, bridging the gap between classroom interaction and the flexibility online courses offer as well as the issue of monetizing what's largely being offered for free. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and online university courses are a game changer in education.

Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. His work on issues of global democracy has extended into documentary film with A Whisper To A Roar. Credited as Inspiration and Executive Producer on the film, Diamond and his team tell the story of democracy in five different countries. But Diamond's focus on democracy has expanded even further to include a democratic offering of education through an online platform. Through Stanford's online classes with Coursera, Diamond is teaching a 10-week class on comparative democracy. The class is offered free of charge and more than 5,000 students have enrolled. While college credits aren't available for this course, those enrolled have the option of earning different certificates of completion depending on the depth of their study.

Learning about democracy through a free online platform from a highly respected university gives me hope for where MOOCs could take us. The fact that Diamond is a leading international advocate for democracy lends instant credibility to the coursework. As Tamar Lewin points out in the latest installment of the New York Times series, online courses are "undeniably chipping away at the traditional boundaries of higher education."

Prestigious universities like Stanford, MIT and Princeton have received a lot of attention as MOOCs develop and gain in popularity, but smaller universities are offering online degrees in addition to traditional coursework. Schools such as Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio and Arizona State University offer a range of graduate level degrees that can be obtained completely through online classes. In some cases, class discussion takes place through online conferencing providing students the chance for closer contact than watching a video and submitting tests and papers online.

Other schools such as San Jose State have taken this in a slightly different direction and recently begun offering blended classes. These classes combine online materials with classroom instruction and early results are promising with 91% of students in the blended classes passing versus 59% in the traditional classroom. If this trend continues, the blended class could replace the typical classroom experience. But will this work for all courses in all subjects and serve diverse populations of students?

Clay Shirky has a joint appointment at New York University (NYU) as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and Assistant Arts Professor in the New Media. He teaches and writes about the influence of culture on technology and vice versa. His writings about MOOCs have pushed the debate on the value of online education and the state of our higher education system. He caught a lot of heat for a piece he wrote comparing the online university platform to Napster and how the music industry was caught off guard. Shirky argues that the university needs a huge overall. He says, "...the issue isn't what education of 'the very best sort' looks like, but what the whole system looks like."

At the risk of oversimplifying the debate over the merits of MOOCs and online learning, the hope is that our institutions of higher learning can figure out how to embrace online platforms and technology so it expands the student population and graduation rates rise. At the same time, if the only face-to-face contact students have with professors comes through something like Google Hangout, students (and teachers) are missing out. You may not remember the exact content of those heated debates from college English, Philosophy or Poly Sci class, but chances are you remember forming thoughts and expressing them, right there in class, on the fly. Is there a way we can embrace the advantages technology affords us while not losing the benefit of a personally connected intellectual community?