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Print Editions Saturday September 30th, 2023

Esemplare '18: Embrace the MOOC

Last week, Bernie Sanders, D-VT, won the New Hampshire Democratic primary, in no small part due to his attractiveness to young voters. According to CNN exit polls, Sanders received a staggering 83 percent of votes from those between the ages of 18 and 29. This sort of dominance cannot be traced back to a single issue, but there is one item on Sanders’ agenda that almost certainly appeals to this demographic: college tuition. Sanders’ plan to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public universities is certainly not without opposition. But the appeal of his plan is not its practicality, but that it offers a solution, if an extreme one.

If nothing else, the appeal of this plan to young voters reveals the increasingly urgent need to resolve the higher education crisis in our country. But the United States is unlikely to adopt Sanders’ plan, and so the question remains: What can be done to make higher education more affordable?

Enter MOOCs. Short for Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs became available at the start of the present decade and have grown exponentially since. These courses are open to the public and are often free or relatively low-cost, with enrollments sometimes reaching into the hundreds of thousands. These courses cover a variety of topics.

From the outset, MOOCs were mostly free but have moved increasingly to a course fee model in recent years. Despite this, MOOCs are substantially cheaper than tuition payments at the schools that offer them; a recent article determined that a standard-price MOOC at Duke University was still roughly 99 percent cheaper than the tuition cost for the same number of credit hours.

I’m not suggesting colleges abandon their current education model and simply accept all online courses for credit. But in a world where Sanders campaigns for free higher education, MOOCs offer a (comparatively) less radical solution.

Of course, such a shift would meet heavy opposition. Signs of resistance have already appeared, primarily from the ranks of university faculty. Professors, especially from middle and low-tier universities, are likely to push back hard against a measure that might jeopardize their livelihoods. Indeed, if MOOCs were adopted on a large scale, some professors might find themselves expendable, or at least in lower demand. This is an unfortunate reality, but higher education is full of them; ultimately, decisions about education in this country have much larger implications. Exorbitant (and rising) tuition costs demand a solution sooner rather than later, and it is clear that some extreme action must be taken.

What if MOOCs became an alternative credit option at Brown that could be used for, say, no more than 25 percent of graduation requirements and no concentration requirements? In such a setting, MOOCs could take the place of a year of college tuition and  some other fees at a fraction of the cost without jeopardizing the quality of a student’s education.

Many MOOCs are not presently designed to be taken as credit alternatives, but such a change would not present too many challenges. MOOCs are already beginning to step up their testing integrity standards. Brown could either provide its students with a selection of MOOCs taught by Brown professors or simply select MOOCs from across the country that meet its academic standards. The transition of MOOCs from channels for casual learning to alternatives for course credit is absolutely feasible.

While there is an unquestionable value in attending the physical Brown University, one need not look far to see examples of productive virtual learning. Many lecture classes at Brown do not strictly require attendance (often offering PowerPoint slides posted on Canvas), and an increasing number provide the option of watching lectures online. In such classes, it would not be unusual for a student to see the classroom only once or twice a semester to take tests. While daily interactions with classmates and professors do add important value to a college education, such interactions — frankly — do not occur in every class a student takes­­. In this light, allowing students to take a quarter of their classes online would not be detrimental to their educations.

To many, the main problem with MOOCs as credit substitutes is that they don’t sound ideal. They might not be explicitly detrimental, but many people at elite universities buy into the idea that a college education is so much more than lectures and tests. I am among them. But the difficulty of decisions should not prevent their being made. MOOCs, while an extreme solution, could solve a massive problem in American higher education. Physical universities and the “college experience,” as we understand it, are here to stay. So, too, is the all too human resistance to change exhibited by American professors and universities. This inaction leads to a stagnancy that posits, consciously or not, that universities cannot or should not change to meet the needs of their current and future students. It is unfortunately true that in human societies, paradigms often fall too slowly. Soon it will be necessary to realize that the present system of higher education is more broken than we want to admit and that MOOCs are a more sensible solution than we can ignore.

Nicholas Esemplare ’18 can be reached at

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