Online education isn’t new, but there has been a recent spike in interest in online college courses — especially free ones.
“What made it so noteworthy was when a Stanford University professor put together an artificial intelligence course offered through the (Massively Open Online Courses),” said Al Panu, University of North Georgia senior vice president. “There were hundreds of thousands of people who had enrolled in that, and that really just brought to the public the incredible power and opportunity that those represent.”
The Massively Open Online Courses are free college-level classes in an online format. The ‘massively’ refers to the sheer number of students taking the courses, while the ‘open’ notes that the online format is open to all.
While these classes have not traditionally been offered for credit, some entities are leaning in that direction.
Some colleges, like UNG and Brenau University, offer online courses and degree programs, but via regular student registration. However, the University System of Georgia has recently joined a partnership that is looking at how the MOOCs can increase access and participation in college degree programs.
“A lot of universities, including the University System of Georgia, have signed on to agreements that will probably move towards being able to offer some of these courses of credit,” Panu said. “Or, for those courses to be used as a supplement to existing courses that people enroll in through the normal, existing registration process.”
David Barnett, senior vice president for administration and chief financial officer at Brenau, said that the institute is in the very early stages of discussing accepting MOOC credits.
“What we are exploring is ways to allow people to possibly transfer credit to the university for MOOC courses they’ve completed,” he said. “We’re in the early stages of evaluating that and trying to determinehow we could assess credit for something that’s as purely self-directed or self-initiated as these MOOCs are.”
The online aspect allows anyone to participate in a college-level course from any location. The classes are offered via many different platforms, with two of the most popular being EdX and Coursera. A user can search for courses in topics they are interested in, or for specific colleges that are featured. They then register for the online class, which may be conducted like any other online class, or simply be material statically posted online. Material could range from downloadable podcasts and video demonstrations to written out lectures and self-assessment quizzes.
Courses usually last a few weeks, with length determined by content and how quickly the individual works.
But since no credit is given, there may not be much incentive for proper attendance.
“Right now, one of the things that is well-known about the MOOCs is that only about 8 to 9 percent who take those courses complete them,” Panu said. Still, he pointed out, 8-9 percent of thousands of people is still a high number.
While the trademark of these online classes is that they are free to users, there is no such thing as “free.”
“We know that there is a cost to it,” Panu said, referring to professor time and input into the classes.
Basically, Panu explained, various schools, including the University of Texas and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have invested into the programs, as well as some private foundations.
“It’s been funded by fairly well-established institutions almost as a research experiment to see what kind of response there is,” Barnett said.
The Georgia Institute of Technology is one of those leading the charge in transitioning these classes from “free” to “affordable.” The college announced in May that it would be introducing the first professional online Master of Science degree in computer science, which can be earned completely through the “massive online” format.
The courses will be available for free, but to obtain the degree, it will be around $7,000 for the entire program, which is a two-year degree.
For an in-state graduate student at Georgia Tech, the tuition per semester is $5,662 for fall 2013 for having more than 12 credit hours. An out-of-state student would be $13,665.
While higher education officials are looking at possibly using these courses as a way to increase the number of people with college degrees, it is of best use to current graduates, at least as of now.
“It’s a way people have chosen to explore the whole concept of online learning, if they’re not sure they even want to go back and do another degree,” Barnett said. “It’s a way they can go out and see what it’s like.”
“Somebody that already has a degree, but really needs to gain more skills in a given area, this is an incredible opportunity to be able to do that,” Panu said.
“This is the ultimate for lifelong learning and education.”