Will Free Online Courses Ever Replace a College Education?

Two years into their existence, MOOCs haven't stolen students away from brick-and-mortar universities. Instead, they've become a genre of their own.

Peter Struck, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, stands in front of a special-effects-ready green screen as he records a MOOC on Greek mythology. (Matt Slocum/AP)

It’s 10:44 am on a Tuesday, and I’m lounging at home in my pajamas, sipping chamomile tea. I am, at the same time, taking a class at Harvard. Professor Gregory Nagy is rhapsodizing about the death of Roy, the cyborg from Blade Runner, and pointing out how certain tropes from his final soliloquy echo important themes from ancient Greek myth. The class is called “The Ancient Greek Hero,” and it’s one of many MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) created by HarvardX, the university’s online course production company. It appears, from my limited experience, to be a fabulous class, which comes as no surprise, since it’s based on a well-established in-person Harvard course of the same name.

The videos for this course are remarkably elegant and professional, conveying a certain vividness that lectures at the blackboard sometimes lack. The discourse on Roy’s death, for example, seamlessly cuts to key scenes from the film, as Professor Nagy’s voiceover explains the Greek notion of the “hora” (the “correct moment”). The production values are just as high in a HarvardX course called “Introduction to Neuroscience,” in which filmmakers use high-gloss animation to create a vibrantly wacky clip about cell biology.

HarvardX is one of 29 institutions whose content appears on edX, one of the biggest platforms for MOOCs. The company that is now edX resulted from a partnership between Harvard and MIT in 2012, though each school’s courses are its own.

The main thing that edX provides, beyond hosting space for the videos, is the software necessary to grade—and provide feedback on—student work. This is no small undertaking: MOOCs can have tens or even hundreds of thousands of enrollees; edX alone counts about 2.5 million students since its inception. Typically, however, only about 7 to 9 percent of these students actually finish the course (though, to be fair, many of them don’t ever intend to). Despite the staggering scale, edX’s software provides grades for all of them—not just on multiple-choice quizzes, but also on short-answer items and essay-length responses.

Ever since MOOCs debuted, they’ve been an object of concern for many college professors. In a letter published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the philosophy faculty of San José State University described the MOOC as a “serious compromise of quality of education.” They feared that MOOCs would come to be seen as replacements for flesh-and-blood teachers. Soon, they warned, there would be no classrooms, only technological simulacra managed by teaching assistants, with all the rewards flowing to a handful of private corporations.

It’s worth noting that these companies do, in fact, present themselves as the future of American education. In the lobby of edX’s headquarters in Kendall Square, near MIT, there are plasma TV screens that repeatedly flash words like “cutting-edge” and “tomorrow” alongside the edX logo. And at the HarvardX office, the overall atmosphere is very much that of a tech start-up: open floorplan; huge iMac screens at every workstation; employees sitting on exercise balls; ideas written in multicolored marker all over the erasable walls. These firms are cutting-edge, and they know it.

They’ve also come along at a time when brick-and-mortar colleges are facing a number of serious challenges. The admissions process has become increasingly competitive; growth in administrative budgets has outpaced raises for faculty; more and more tenure-track lines have been replaced by low-paid adjuncts; and tuition has continually skyrocketed. MOOCs, many seem to fear, will contribute to this trend, ensuring the ultimate obsolescence of the professor.

The vast majority of assignments offered through edX (which you can try here) are graded not by a human being, but by software called Open Response Assessment (ORA, pronounced “aura”). Although edX’s MOOCs do offer some peer-graded assignments—and some even provide students with opportunities to live-chat with a faculty member or teaching assistant—student work is, by and large, evaluated by algorithms that employ techniques called “machine learning.” It works by finding correlations between the grades assigned to a “training set” of responses—which are graded by actual human beings—and certain superficial features of student’s answers.

Piotr Mitros, edX’s chief scientist, offered the example of a chemistry problem in which students are asked which factors determine whether a particular chemical solidifies into a glass or a crystal. (The answers are “the rate of cooling” and “the complexity of the molecule.”) After being trained on the various ways in which students actually phrase these ideas, ORA can assign points according to a rubric and even provide feedback or hints to students who missed one component or the other.

Similar processes can be used for short-answer questions in a variety of disciplines. They can even be adapted to grade essays, which requires the computer to look at things like essay length, sentence length, vocabulary level, and punctuation.

Mitros, however, is careful to point out that no one—least of all edX—seriously believes that automated grading can fully replace a live instructor. “Human grading and automated grading aren’t in conflict,” he said. “It’s less a question of ‘Will machines grade instead of humans?’ It’s more a question of ‘When do you use machine grading versus when do you use human grading?’”

He continued: “If you asked me, ‘Do you want a school experience where every single piece of text is graded by machine?’ I’d say, ‘That’s a straw-man. Nobody is proposing that.’” Further, Mitros is happy to concede that there are certain types of assignments—like literary criticism—that machines are very poorly suited to evaluate. “They just aren’t capable of actually weighing the quality of a literary argument,” he said.

In a surprisingly poignant conversational turn, Mitros also emphasized that, however advanced machine learning may become, there is no substitute for real human concern and compassion. “Closeness to teachers,” he said, “really does help student outcomes. If I know somebody’s going to look at it, I’m going to do a better job. Machines are never going to replace the need for the human connection—the idea that I created something and someone cares about it, someone cares about me.”

MOOCs may lack a certain human dimension, but there is a sense in which they are brilliantly democratic. The classes offered through edX (which are—and hopefully always will be—free) are designed to bring content from storied institutions like Harvard and MIT to the masses. Unlike Coursera or Udacity, edX is a non-profit that receives most of its money from its university partners, charging only for verified certificates. The university partners, meanwhile, receive promises of future revenue generated from several sources with which edX is experimenting, including charging fees for verified certificates, licensing course content to other institutions, and offering executive education. For the time being, however, companies like edX are simply making elite-level courses available for free to people all over the world.

It’s not clear, though, whether MOOCs can ever really democratize the Ivy League. After all, what makes Harvard Harvard is not what its graduates know; it’s the ultra-strict admissions standards, the gilt-edged brand. An avid MOOC-taker can spend four years taking the most challenging classes that Harvard and MIT have to offer—and can totally excel at them—and still come away with nothing more than a pile of certificates.

According to Robert Lue, faculty director at HarvardX, the question is not whether HarvardX’s MOOCs will replace Harvard, but how to incorporate the insights from the MOOC revolution back into the traditional classroom. So far, the main lesson seems to be that old-school practices are badly in need of an update. The buzzwords here include “blended learning” and “flipped classrooms,” which refer to the integration of online content and the restructuring of the lecture-then-exam model of teaching.

“The MOOC,” Lue told me, “has been a catalyst that helped us realize just how different things are. I have tried some blended-learning techniques in my own classroom and been startled by the results. The level of performance was remarkable.”

An expanding body of research suggests that providing students with feedback in real-time has a big impact on how much they retain. And this just so happens to be something that MOOCs—and automated grading—do exceptionally well. As Mitros put it: “We have study after study suggesting that you learn very little as a result of me talking at you for an hour. Whereas if I convey information to you for five minutes and then assess you on it, and repeat that for an hour, you learn a lot more.”

For the time being, MOOCs seem unlikely to take the place of physical campuses—or even replace for-profit universities, as Lue hopes they will. In order to do that, MOOCs would have to begin offering meaningful credits—the kind someone could take to a job interview and expect to have taken seriously. (For now, even though HarvardX classes feature the same content as their in-person equivalents, it’s not possible for students to earn anything more than a certificate of completion—the equivalent of a “P” in a pass-fail class.)

So what is a MOOC? What makes it different from a brick-and-mortar classroom? In the end, the answer may be exactly what it seems to be: a MOOC is a film. It’s easy to dismiss college-age kids as screen-addicted zombies, but cinema has a particular ability to move people: It’s informative and entertaining; it’s literature and photography at the same time. If nothing else, the MOOC-driven revolution may inspire classroom instructors to make their lessons more dynamic and figure out what really ignites students’ imaginations. There is a reason they can’t take their eyes off the screen.