Industry Market Trends

Can MOOCs Solve the STEM Problem?

May 21, 2013

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are being touted as the future of secondary education, and many proponents argue that the MOOC model may solve the U.S. shortage of technical workers. Skeptics, however, question the quality of the training provided by such online education courses.

In 2016, a group of students will receive master's degrees in computer science from Georgia Institute of Technology. These students will pay $7,000 for the degree - about one-sixth of the traditional cost - and may never set foot on campus. Thanks to an agreement between Georgia Tech, AT&T, and Udacity, a venture-capital funded online education startup, students will learn virtually via a "massive open online course," or MOOC.

Online education is not new, of course. About one-third of students today take at least one online course, but the MOOC model is different, and many believe it could revolutionize higher education, particularly for students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

Last month, Stanford University announced it will team with edX, a nonprofit open-source MOOC platform created by MIT and Harvard to offer free online college courses. edX hosts MOOCs from about a dozen schools, including Georgetown University, the latest partner to sign on. While these free courses will not lead to degrees, attendees will receive certificates of completion.

There are several factors driving the growth and penetration of the MOOC model. The first is the need to address the shortage of STEM workers in the U.S. The second is the prohibitive costs of obtaining a college degree via traditional methods. Finally, there is the goal of expanding access to STEM education to students across the world.

At the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C., edX president Anant Agarwal said MOOCs are changing education to fit an evolving world.

"Technology that was new 10 years ago is already outdated today but, for some reason, the learning experience is the same as it was 50 years ago," Agarwal said. "Students still congregate in a lecture hall to listen to a professor deliver knowledge to them. With MOOCs, not only can universities reach more students, but they can teach in a progressive way that facilitates better learning in a high-technology environment."

MOOCs have both supporters and detractors. Supporters argue that the model can reduce costs without undermining education and increase productivity while updating learning methodologies to 21st-century needs. Detractors say MOOCs lower academic standards, particularly in core areas, and reinforce a class divide: poorer students will be forced into the MOOC model while wealthier, on-campus students will find their degrees come with the kind of employment networking opportunities that only personal relationships can offer.

Debate about the effectiveness of MOOCs is likely to increase with the emergence of degree programs, like the one offered by Georgia Tech and Udacity, that seek to correct the flaws of classroom-based technology education and broaden higher education opportunities.

Clarissa Shen, Udacity's vice president of strategic business and marketing, says the company has taken a very high-touch, high-investment approach to its courses and intends to be much more than just an online education platform or a process for taking existing classes and putting them online. Instead, she says the company hopes to help transform how education is delivered. Using the strengths of the cloud-based delivery model could raise the value of MOOC-based degrees in the tech industry, and the quality and reputations of the participating universities will take the degrees even further.

"Many employers absolutely get that it's about skills and continuous learning," Shen told IMT. "We work with Google, Nvidia, Cadence, Autodesk, and more on this front. AT&T has put forth a big commitment toward educating the workforce of this country with their sponsoring of the online Master of Science in computer science. Having forward-thinking universities like Georgia Tech on board definitely speeds adoption."

Shen said the MOOC model teaches in a different way than traditional classroom lecturing, and these new multimedia methodologies are perhaps better suited for STEM learning than campus-based techniques.

"We focus on active learning and have a strong focus on learning by doing," she added. "In fact, we believe the 'lecture' as we traditionally know it is very much dead when it comes to the online learning experience. We allow students to learn and do, and all of this asynchronously, which also facilitates continuous learning."

In the meantime, many universities are likely to be wary of a model that could potentially erode revenue; others will be attracted by potential revenue that would otherwise be lost (from foreign students, for example). Other detractors criticize the goal of many MOOCs - to boost the U.S. pool of STEM workers - by maintaining that there is no STEM worker shortage in the U.S., particularly not one requiring an expansion of H1B worker visas.

Expensive campus-based education is increasingly out of reach for many worthy students. If MOOCs can help fill the education gap with lower-cost education services, this new model may soon become a viable, if not preferred, alternative to traditional college learning.