To understand Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a reporter enrolled in 11 free online courses and tracked his experiences.  He completed 2 courses and dropped 9 after realizing that although the lectures could be scheduled at his convenience, the courses took a lot of time away from his day job, and some required substantial preparation.  Eleven courses were just too difficult since his MOOCs were not dumbed down.  Indeed, for many students, any course is too challenging because half of all undergraduates in the United States arrive on campus needing remedial work before they can begin regular credit-bearing classes.  The best publicized MOOCs are operated by faculty at Harvard, Yale, MIT, and Stanford, but the widest choice of MOOCs come from Coursera, Udacity and edX – all private companies.

The reporter stayed in the courses long enough to grade them.  He gave his MOOCs an A grade for convenience.  He assigned a B grade to professors, assignments, student-to-student interactions, and the overall experience.  Teacher-to-student interactions earned a D grade.  Clearly better teacher access needs to be addressed.

Unionized faculty at all three California higher education systems oppose offering equivalent academic credit for MOOCs – even for students shut out of on-campus classes.  Some professors ridicule MOOCs as suitable to college “autodidacts” but unsuitable for others who need the “small liberal arts institutions that provide convenient social and academic engagement opportunities for students.”  To the contrary, students who lack access to $50,000 per year of someone else’s money will probably learn to thrive in MOOCs.

Constructive critics note that “online courses taught by professors at local universities can cultivate autonomous learning strategies and create opportunities for student-to-student engagement as well as student-to-professor engagement.”  This is already happening and it addresses the teacher-student interaction shortcoming.  A course offered to San Jose State engineering students is “circuits,” a difficult course where only 59% pass the traditional lecture version.  When offered as an MIT-authored MOOC with some traditional classroom time, 91% of students passed.  Children now in K-12 will likely acquire the skills needed to learn from MOOCs.   That should be an important goal for K-12 teachers.

It is unclear whether a MOOC-centric online degree will be seen as competitive in the job market against a bricks and mortar degree.  Professors with stellar reputations and schools with world class resources are investing themselves in MOOCs.  Students who proved they can interact virtually with others and thrive with challenging content online may have an advantage in some industries such as finance, engineering and marketing.

This week, the online education community received a proposal that would allow “any institution that had received state authorization for its online programs, based on certain quality and consumer protection standards, [to] be allowed to enroll students from other states that met the same basic standards and agreed to reciprocity.”  Udacity, EdX and Coursera are all offering proctored exams, and in some cases, certification for transfer credit through the American Council on Education.  Grants of state authority for these “schools” to operate are a financial issue.  States charge online schools more than $10,000 for authorization to operate in 5 nearby states for a few hundred students, up to $5.5 million for a public university to operate in 49 other states.  The state-imposed financial hurdle is inconsistent with keeping courses affordable.

Faculty resentments against MOOCs come from fear of being marginalized – being shunted from their prestigious lectern to a headset in a call-center.   But MOOCs benefit everyone else.  MOOCs can vastly improve access for underserved students of all ages and budgets since MOOCs can reduce the college’s costs and tuition prices.  Cash strapped states will see MOOCs as a budget victory.  Perhaps “big education” will encourage MOOCs evolution, even though it may cost entrenched union jobs.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman who lives in Florida and who writes for The American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research