Will MOOCs Equalize or Divide Accessibility to Higher Education?

MOOCs are on the minds of many educators and students today as the new open source trend opens many discussions on what learning will look like in the 21st century. Technology can bring a free college course taught by the best of the best professors from universities like Stanford and Harvard right to your living room. The popularity of MOOCs has people asking, why pay for a college education when you can get one for free online?

In his latest op-ed Thomas Friedman shares what he learned about the future of MOOCs at the recent conference “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education.” The following are a few points I found most compelling:

  • Friedman quotes historian Walter Russell Mead, writing higher education will move from a model of  “time served” to “stuff learned.” 
  • Blended learning will optimize learning in and out of the classroom. Today’s college students spend classroom-time getting lectured at and their time at home studying for a test. In the near future, at-home studying will be reserved for students to master basic skills at their own pace and time in the classroom will be spent applying their basic knowledge in labs and discussions.

MOOCs are nondiscriminatory, free, and available wherever you can take your device and have an internet connection. In 2013, a laptop, a smartphone, and a wireless connection are not rarities, however, neither are data caps. Data caps are the monthly limits put on the amount of data a person can use on their device. Data caps are also proving to be another layer to the digital divide.  In the article “Caps on Data Use Dim Online Learning’s Bright Future,” the writers explain how someone with a low-cost data plan will quickly hit their data maximum taking a “free” online course:

Both Verizon and AT&T offer “low cost” plans that bundle unlimited voice and texting with a gigabyte of data consumption for $40 or $50 per month. However, if you tried to stream video lectures on that connection, you’d reach the data cap after about three hours and then face fees of $15 per gigabyte. If you tried to complete a course with 15 hours of video a month, your phone bill could arrive with as much as $70 in extra fees.

Providing a free quality college education to all is a progressive and not so impossible ideal, but improving accessibility and affordability for the devices and connections needed to take a free course are lagging far behind. Will MOOCs really bring more education to more people? Though online learning is still in its infancy, we know:

  • Graduate students have high success rates in online learning.
  • Undergraduates are more likely to struggle in an online learning environment.
  • Emerging studies show employers are less likely to hire someone with a degree from an online university than a traditional university.

If the demand for more online learning persists, so must the demand for affordable devices and services  In addition, students taking primarily online classes will have to have the initiative, determination, and follow through to get the experiences and networking they need to augment classroom learning with professional skills.   In the new world of learning, the power is in the student’s hands but that alone will not be enough.   Ingenuity, ambition, and the ability to have a strong track record will allow online students, or any student for that matter, to show how they have single-handedly crafted meaningful professional experiences to complement college learning.



“The Professor’s Big Stage,” by Thomas Friedman. The New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/06/opinion/friedman-the-professors-big-stage.html?ref=opinion&_r=0>

“Data Caps Could Dim Online Learning’s Bright Future,” by By Benjamin Lennett and Danielle Kehl. The Chronicle.<http://chronicle.com/article/Caps-on-Data-Use-Dim-Online/137653/>

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