Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are all the rage these days and are being offered as a potential way to shorten the degree-attainment process and thereby reduce costs. With escalating tuition at public and private institutions and shrinking median household income, the energy around MOOCs is fueled by the question often asked by students, parents and policymakers: Can a meaningful higher education be provided at a reasonable price? The answer to this question is yes, but affordability should not be implemented at the expense of quality nor at the risk of vitiating a degree as a widely accepted credential.
At New England College of Business and Finance (NECB), we focus on what I like to call “classically offered online classes” or COOCs, instead of MOOCs. Through COOCs, our school is lowering the cost of education in ways that preserve quality. For instance, our model, which is 100 percent online, has the attributes of a true classroom with peer cohesion and development among students, faculty leadership and institutional support services. We also offer services that resemble more traditional institutions including alumni and career services, library and research skills workshops, and 24/7 free, online tutoring, as well as the Canvas Learning Management System, a virtual learning platform where students can discuss their coursework with faculty and their peers.
There is a growing online imperative in higher education without which the ability to lower costs and to provide more access to education cannot be accomplished in today’s economic environment. Many traditional colleges are struggling, and in turn, are deeply discounting tuition to attract students. At the same time, these institutions are not changing their model so they continue to bear the same cost structure. It is necessary, however, to lower the costs of producing a quality education in order to also lower the price of attaining one.
In particular, and especially in regard to MOOCs, costs are being reduced at the expense of an inviolate component of a quality educational process: the faculty. Our faculty members are at the heart of the educational experience by being highly responsive to the individual learning needs of students, leading classes through enlightening discussions and serving as mentors for students. Maintaining faculty as a critical component of higher education doesn’t mean faculty costs should not be controlled. At NECB, we strive to keep our faculty costs down, while still maintaining a low student-to-faculty ratio, by having approximately two-thirds of our courses taught by adjuncts. These adjuncts bring their real-world experiences to the classroom, ensuring that students get a well-rounded education that combines practical and theoretical knowledge. Both adjunct and full-time faculty members are leveraged where they can do the most good — in the classroom teaching students and evaluating their coursework, rather than working on the technology that goes into creating NECB’s online classes. Each professor is assigned one IT specialist, who works with the professor’s curriculum in mind to create an effective, technologically efficient online course. NECB also has academic advisers and career services experts who can help students plan their courses and their future after NECB. In this way, faculty members can focus on helping students, while letting other experts manage these additional components of the online education experience.
Not surprisingly, another cost-savings method is the use of online delivery itself. At NECB, all courses are offered online, which has proven to be an effective approach for students of varying ages seeking all degree types. A study conducted for the U.S. Department of Education found that students, who completed some or all coursework online, on average, outperformed those who were educated solely in the traditional classroom setting. Not only is online learning equal and, in some cases, better than face-to-face instruction as this research demonstrates, but it also reduces the need for a lot of real estate. If students are added, facility costs remain low as new classrooms don’t need to be added. Low facility costs are another main component in lowering costs that can then be passed down to the student in the form of lower tuition.
In today’s higher education market, the fastest-growing component is what used to be called “nontraditional students.” College students under age 23 have actually become the minority. For today’s older students, who understand the importance of a degree but don’t have a lot of extra time and money at their disposal, frills and extracurricular activities are not required. At NECB, we do not offer dormitories, a cafeteria, a gymnasium, student lounges, nor a host of student organizations and clubs. We offer exactly what our students want: a solid, useful and relevant education that results in the acquisition of competencies that will help them with career improvement and career escalation. By avoiding the frills that residential campuses provide, we keep our costs modest and our tuition low. For students with families, jobs and other commitments, a no-frills, but solid education at a reasonable cost is exactly what is desired.
These and other measures enable us to keep costs down for students but also offer high-quality academic programs. To ensure that we are doing so, we commit a substantial amount of dollars and operational time to assessment so we can demonstrate student satisfaction, professional achievement and student learning. Our assessment practices not only include standardized survey instruments, but we also bring in external faculty to evaluate our curriculum, student work and methods of instruction.
As for MOOCs, they will find their place in online delivery, but as “sourceware” not as “courseware,” and it will be important for the accreditation councils to hold the line on their creditworthiness until there is researched demonstration of their efficacy. As sourceware, MOOCs can be a major advancement over standard textbooks because they preserve the use of exceptional content experts and expand the concept of the textbook by including internal assessment mechanisms and student-to-student interaction. Building on this concept, edX, the Harvard/MIT venture, is now saying its online courses will “improve” rather than “replace” campus-based education, and it has arrangements with Bunker Hill and other community colleges to teach courses around the MOOC content as one might similarly teach a class around a textbook. While this is an appropriate and admirable application, by reincorporating the on-ground class component, it begins to defeat the affordability online courses can provide. This MOOC application injects another faculty layer into the course and the concept of a place-bound schedule for the students and reverts to the use of real estate to host the course.
In his seminal work on the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn puts forth a theory saying major changes in accepted scientific practice are more a matter of fits and starts, rather than a pattern of changes occurring in a straight line. Kuhn points out that sometimes the revolutionary method can create more or different problems than the predecessor method, which it is trying to improve upon. Such is my feeling about MOOCs. They have found a method of bringing tremendous expertise and knowledge to a vast audience, but, as the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University reported last month, most MOOCs have completion rates of less than 10 percent. Furthermore, because of the lack of consistent faculty presence, there is often a student peer-grading system rather than an expert faculty member taking the time to evaluate student work and deploying institutionally agreed upon rubrics. However, to the extent MOOCs are making a contribution to online learning applications, especially as to the overall credibility of the delivery model, they should be regarded as forward movement.
We just need to remember higher education is not all about creating a course. It’s about creating a class, and that is where real learning will continue to abide—just at a far more reasonable price.
Howard E. Horton is president of New England College of Business and Finance.