Although the public’s faith in traditional, brick and mortar higher education is dwindling, college tuition prices keep rising. A Pew Research Center national pollfound that 57 percent of prospective college students believe that a college degree no longer offers a value commensurate with the price of tuition and fees. The same poll revealed that 75 percent of prospective students doubt that a traditional degree is affordable at all. And for good reason: By one estimate, college tuitions and fees nationwide increased 1,120 percent between 1978 and 2011, resulting in a staggering amount of student loan debt, which, at $1.3 trillion, is larger than national credit card debt—and this in a country fairly addicted to credit cards.
In response to this crisis, defenders of the higher education status quo blame the hand that feeds them, citing mythical “state disinvestment” as the cause of tuition hyperinflation. Meanwhile, tuition and student debt keep rising.
What can be done? When Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) made their first foray into higher education about a decade ago, the hope was that they would deliver education content to more students at a lower, or even, no cost. They delivered on the cost savings, but the most common critique of this education innovation has focused on the low rate of students who complete these courses, which some studies have found to be only ten percent.
A number of MOOCs have taken on the challenge to increase course completion, crafting innovations that are now yielding completion rates that are up to five times the average. They have accomplished this through seeking to ameliorate the “loneliness”—that is, the social isolation—of the long-distance learner. This advance is especially encouraging, given the speed with which MOOCs are multiplying: According to one survey, roughly 2,000 new MOOCs have taken flight since the beginning of the year.
Having taught online college courses myself—though with class sizes far smaller than MOOCs—I was intrigued to find out how exactly these courses are able to garner five times the completion rates of the average MOOC. The answer lies with a number of techniques and protocols designed to put classmates together more intimately, for example, encouraging greater student interactions through live sessions, online discussion boards, peer review assessment, and social media communication.
One school that has successfully implemented these reforms is St. George’s University (SGU), which offered its first MOOC in 2013, a course titled “One Health, One Medicine,” which is an eight-week examination of the history of medicine, emerging infectious diseases, food safety, and international health issues.
The 2013 offering was delivered on a standard online platform. Beginning with its 2014 version of One Health, One Medicine, St. George’s now delivers the course on its own platform: SGUx. To address the isolation that comes with the wide geographical coverage made possible by the internet, the school arranged the course schedule to meet at different times and days. This helped bridge the divide among its 3000 students, from more than 45 countries, enrolled in the course. It also added student engagement tools and applications, such as an interactive blog domain for discussion questions, interactive case study reviews, peer review student seminar presentations, live virtual office hours and presentation, communication through social media, and a comprehensive examination for course credit.
These measures have had a demonstrably positive effect. With each succeeding year, the One Health, One Medicine MOOC achieved a higher percentage of student retention than previously. Students submitted interactive blogs weekly on each module, and then commented on and evaluated each other’s posts. Students also learned from each other through peer evaluations of each other’s seminar presentations. The SGUx platform enhanced its chat tools, linking it to social media outlets and thereby fostering rapid communications among its students. Additional incentives to complete the MOOC include St. George’s offer of a course credit to those students who finish the class as well as a comprehensive, proctored examination.
The increased interactions—both among students, and between them and their instructors—produced a retention rate of 58.5 percent from 2014 to 2016, as opposed to an 11.1 percent rate in 2013, which constitutes more than a fivefold increase.
Perhaps the best news of all: There was no cost to students to complete the course. If a student opts to obtain continuing education credits for the course, there is a one-time fee of $50 USD.
Given the rapid, ongoing growth of MOOCs, one can expect to see additional schools remake their courses in this manner in order to become more socially engaging. When they do, and if this yields similar increases in course completion rates, then traditional higher education will be still more hard-pressed to defend its high costs.
Of course, we will always have traditional institutions of higher education, and rightly so. But consider this fact: Today, nontraditional students make up the majority of those seeking some type of accreditation after high school, be it a two- or four-year degree, or a certificate. No more than 29 percent of postsecondary degree- and certificate-seekers are “traditional students,” which refers to those aged 18-22, who attend a four-year residential college full time. Instead, the new majority of degree seekers are over the age of 25, and/or working fulltime, and/or with families of their own to support while they strive to advance their educations. This new majority should constitute the focus of education leaders’ efforts to provide the training needed to survive in the 21stcentury global marketplace.
For these students, both the ease of access and the low cost of MOOCs may be their only means of securing the credentials they seek. And, unlike the defenders of the higher education status quo, these MOOCs providers are not blaming, but rather, attempting to hep the victims of tuition and student debt hyperinflation.