How to get rid of massive waitlists for college courses and turn professors into rock stars

profrockstar

No educational technology or teaching method has been embraced faster or more widely than so-called Massively Open, Online Courses (or MOOCs for short). For the uninitiated, these are online-only college courses where typically top tier professors teach audiences that in some cases number in the hundreds of thousands. This used to be considered a fad and a misguided approach to instruction, but it’s now rapidly going mainstream.

The state of California – a big player in establishing educational standards that are often adopted across the nation – is moving to approve legislation that will require colleges in that state to honor and give credit for faculty-approved MOOCs taken by their students.

Remember when Steve Jobs said 3D simulations on the NeXT computer would revolutionize education?  That vision helped him break free of Apple. It led to the evolution of what is now known as Mac OSX and it is directly responsible for the smartphones many of us use every day.

But the education revolution he spoke of never happened.  For generations, educational technology was a sleepy market sector that was always touted but never fulfilled. What makes this time any different?

I see three major forces at work that will create a “perfect storm” that will fundamentally change what we call education.

Huge student waitlists

As the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, colleges have been forced to cut back on expenses.  As a result, many classes at public universities and community colleges are over-subscribed.  Some students can’t get into the classes they need to graduate and must extend their college experience to gain the credits they need – which further overcrowds schools and classes (and mires students in even more debt).

The biggest waitlists are for introductory courses, which generally are also the least rewarding for professors to teach.  In California alone, an estimated 784,000 community-college students are on such waiting lists, with the prospect of demand only increasing. It’s a legitimate crisis.

Last Fall, MOOC pioneer Udacity tested three math courses with San Jose State University. Students could enroll in intermediate algebra, college algebra, and elementary statistics courses online and only show up on campus for exams. One Udacity computer class alone had 250,000 people enrolled. The power of MOOCs is that they can fulfill the demands of students and schools in an economically efficient manner on a massive scale, while resolving the problem of overcrowding that has been festering for decades.

Academics as the new rock stars

MOOCs are already proving to be the greatest thing to hit universities since football. They bring worldwide attention to universities yet in a genuine way that completely supports the overall mission of university. And the MOOC platforms tend to feature university brands as prominently as ESPN features a school’s sports teams, making top-tier universities even more powerful for attracting students, faculty and research funding.

In times past, an outstanding professor could publish textbooks on his or her own as a supplement to teaching, which featured the professor’s personal brand as much as his/her employer’s. Early on in the development of its online courses, though, Stanford (followed by others) has made it clear though that all courses are owned by the university, not the professor doing the teaching.

That could change, but for now the personal brands of faculty have become analogous to athletes or rock stars. While for now they can’t earn royalties for teaching a MOOC – and it’s worth noting these represent a significant undertaking – their visibility is unlike anything remotely possible before, with many courses reaching tens of thousands of students at a time. Such recognition bolsters their careers and reputation far beyond the royalties they might receive from textbook publishing in the past.

Untapped demand

Some skeptics have pointed out that overall MOOC completion rates vary from 3 percent to 20 percent of those who initially enroll in a given course.  They say the “dropout” rate is 90 percent, which indeed sounds bad.  But it’s also misleading, and here’s why:  Most of the dropoff is by people who are not really ready to take a full-on university course but who are happy to observe and learn something along the way.

What are we to make of this?  Millions of people around the world want to take online course, but the current offerings are too rigorous and not yet suited to their needs.  And this is a problem?  Sounds to me like we are engaging a whole new set of students and developing new methods to invite them to pursue their dreams through the courses and classes they can take online. If the goal is spreading knowledge and education, then MOOCs are wildly succeeding.

John Duhring has been s a founding team member at nine startups, including Supermac Software and Bitmenu. During his career he has also applied technology to learning at large companies such as Prentice-Hall, Apple and AOL. Follow him on Twitter @duhring.
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