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How MOOCs Legitimized Online Education

Jeffrey Selingo

Author, "College Unbound"

The Internet might have popularized the idea of learning from a faraway professor, but distance education predates the World Wide Web by more than a century.

The first distance-education courses were offered in the United States in the late 1800s, when students in correspondence courses received class materials and sent their completed work back to the professor through the mail. The advent of radio and television in the twentieth century shifted the idea of distance education to the airwaves, and by the late 1960s, even Stanford was offering classes on closed-circuit television to employers in Silicon Valley.

For much of their modern life, however, distance-education courses have suffered from an image problem.

In the 1970s and 1980s, distance classes were seen as cheap knockoffs of on-campus offerings, hawked on late-night television by the likes of Sally Struthers, who asked viewers, “Do you want to make more money? Sure, we all do,” in commercials for the International Correspondence School.

In the late 1990s, the introduction of online learning coincided with the expansion of for-profit providers, such as the University of Phoenix, DeVry and Capella. The two trends were often conflated in the media, and the quality concerns that frequently dogged the for-profit industry rubbed off on online education.

Columbia University tried to change public perception in 2000, by launching a high-profile, $25 million online learning portal called Fathom that aggregated content from other top-ranked institutions. It was an idea ahead of its time, by a decade. The site went dark in 2003, after failing to turn a profit. By 2011, in a survey by the Pew Research Center, only 29 percent of American adults said that online courses offered equal value to learning in traditional classrooms.

And then MOOCs came along.

Tens of thousands of students began to sign up for the free online courses offered by the nation’s most elite universities. They were students with bachelor’s degrees, PhDs, MBAs—many taking an online course for the first time, and many who wouldn’t have ever considered taking one from the University of Phoenix or any other online provider. The image of the online student shifted from a working-class, high-school graduate going back to school to a college-educated professional looking to gain a piece of knowledge to get ahead in her job.

MOOCs did what millions of dollars in advertisements from online providers never achieved: They legitimized virtual education. “Despite ample evidence that online education was comparable or better than face-to-face, it was always seen as the cheaper way to go, of cheating your education,” said George Siemens, who co-taught the first MOOC in Canada in 2008. “Once MIT and Stanford dove in, it did away with those negative connotations.”

Students who took MOOCs used what they learned on the job, in their startup companies, and added them to their resumes and LinkedIn profiles. Even if MOOCs never award academic credit, today’s students validate just-in-time education among employers: Workers can learn something without months of schooling and without getting a certificate to show for it.

For today’s MOOC students, the courses introduced a whole new way of learning, one that was so easily accessible they could use it throughout their lifetime. For most of us, school has always been a physical place where we went to spend hours in a classroom with peers and hear a lecture from a teacher. We had to follow a schedule set by someone else. Now we could consume education in the supermarket line by watching a three-minute video on our iPhones.

MOOCs put students in control. They could do as much or as little as they wanted at any time. They could listen to lectures in the car on the way to work. They could customize a course designed for tens of thousands to their personal learning style.

Now that the early hype about MOOCs is mostly over and they are out of the daily media spotlight, the next phase in their development might turn out to be even more noteworthy for students than the last two years have been. But this much is for sure: For all the highly publicized failures of MOOCs, they have changed the brand of online education.

Jeffrey Selingo

Author, "College Unbound"

Jeff Selingo is a best-selling author and award-winning columnist who helps parents and higher-education leaders imagine the college and university of the future: how families will pay, what campuses will look…