I recently enrolled in the Harvard course “Justice.” I didn't have to go all the way to Cambridge to do it, though — I took the course through Harvard's newly launched platform for free online education, edX. Is Harvard's decision to offer free education a goodwill gesture to the world? Perhaps on the surface, but I think there is more to this story.
Essentially, top-tier universities such as Harvard, MIT, Brown, and Stanford offer free online courses on a variety of subjects through several outlets including edX and Coursera. Using the celebrity-like platform of super academics such as Harvard’s Dr. Michael Sandel, these universities and their so-called MOOCs (massive open online courses) are outlets to educate the world for free. With the advent of MOOCs, universities appear to be getting more altruistic in their efforts to educate the world. But is this truly their endgame, or are they seeking something else ultimately, such as more tuition dollars?
The courses are almost completely free with the exception of the “Signature Track” certificate option through Coursera, which makes students pay around $50 for a certification of completion with the university's logo on it. Besides this option, what are the other catches? The short answer is none — right now. But
while free education from the top scholars in the world is an exciting notion, these MOOCs could be paving the way for something bigger – perhaps a hook to encourage more tuition dollars.
About a year ago in an interview with NPR’s Steve Henn, Stanford professor and co-founder of Coursera Daphne Koller noted the overt altruism of these courses, claiming that MOOCs have the power to change lives of people around the world. However, in the same article Sebastian Thrun, former Stanford professor and founder of another MOOC platform called Udacity, claimed that while MOOCs are great, they don’t offer degrees. And that fact is something he wants to change through the “reinventing” of online education and by implication, the university system.
Therefore, while embarking down the trail of praise for the MOOC revolution, there seems to be a faint theme beyond the mere free education of the world: a greater level of degree dissemination. Founders of these MOOC platforms seem to have a massive (pun intended) vision for the direction of online education. But the vision doesn’t appear to be all free. Based mostly on the aforementioned comments from Dr. Thrun, degree offerings in MOOCs could be the next thing around the corner. And I would be willing to bet that the leap from sparse, free MOOCs to the offering of degrees will come with a hefty price tag.