Free College?

How would you like to take college classes online free of charge? There is a new wave of courses in higher education called MOOC’s, or massive open online courses. These classes are open to thousands of students, all around the world, for free. All you need is internet access. Of course, there are some schools that require fees that would need to be paid in order to receive credit, so it’s free, but still kind of not free. There are pro’s and con’s to offering these open online classes. Obviously, it is good to offer education to those around the world who have previously been discluded because they couldn’t afford it. This would allow anyone with an internet connection to have access to a college education. There are however some problems with these courses. One professor at Princeton, Mitchell Duneier, teaches a MOOC Sociology class that has 40,000 students enrolled. Yes, 40,000! Could you imagine trying to grade assignments for 40,000 students? Or having enough office hours to meet the needs of 40,000? For one person, there is simply not enough time to address every question from 40,000 students. 

A system has been set up to deal with these problems. For questions on the discussion board, since there is no way the professor could answer every single question, the students can vote on which questions are more important to be answered. In addition, as far as grading goes, a system has been set up where assignments are graded by multiple peers and an average is taken for the final grade. But this poses some obvious problems. What if students do not take grading seriously? Or what if some students grade harsher than others? There are still some obvious problems with this system.

Since we are learning about design, I am curious to know what you guys think would be the best design for classes like this? How do you think the system can be improved? Do you think that these classes are going to be good or bad for the educational system?

Here’s the link to the article:

14 responses to “Free College?

  1. Wow, the thought of having 40,000+ students in a class is a bit scary, for both the students and the teacher. I think that the idea of making higher education more accessible to more people for free or a reduced cost is a good idea. However, taking a class like this for a grade and credits may not be the best idea. I don’t think that having the students grade other students homework is a good idea. The students, as you mentioned, may assign grades that are too high or low which may cause the grades to not reflect the students’ actual achievement. I also don’t think that voting on which questions the professor should answer is a good idea. Instead, they should create a list of frequently asked questions to address commonly asked questions. The class should also have a large number of TA’s to address any lingering questions and grade the student’s assignments. Ultimately, for a class of 40,000 of more taught online for free or at a reduced cost, I’m just not sure if actually receiving a grade or credit is really the best way to go because the professor and TA’s simply don’t have enough time to address each student. Instead, they should do as the iTunesU app does–offer online classes like this, which allows the users to take college courses for free, but not for a grade or credit. I have watched a few iTunesU lectures from prestigious universities and found them to be very interesting and beneficial. ASU offers lectures via iTunesU as well.

    • I have never heard of iTunesU either until today and am legitimately asking and not just being sarcastic: Why would someone take a class that offers no benefits? Are they just taking it to learn the information? While I think this is a wonderful idea, it still posses the question of how to get more affordable education for everyone.

  2. So my first question is “Are you doing this for milestone 3?” Because if not, I really like the topic and would love to steal it.

    Nonetheless, there is so much to say about this particular topic. One of the things that excites me the most about these MOOC’s is the opportunity for intercultural dialogue. The Arab Spring has taught us that technology can effectively mobilize people for political action. However, as the recent actions taken by Egyptian President Morsi have shown, political mobilization does not always equal political influence. Political discourse is still largely the realm of the elite. Ideally, these online forums and courses would cause people to realize that a digitally connected globe allows individuals the opportunity to change the nature of political discourse itself, not simply stand around yelling and protesting.

    With regard to for-credit classes, I wonder if these could be supplemented by a CLEP or for-credit examination that could gauge the profiency of a student following their completion of the course.

  3. I think this is a really awesome concept, i mean who wouldn’t want to go to college for free? However, the potential drawbacks seem to me to outweigh the positives, i personally would not trust most of my peers to be competent enough to actually do a good job grading my homework and such. Honestly i think Kelli articulated most of potential drawbacks that i can see, and i agree with her overall i think its a potentially good idea with just a little refinement. I also agree with Tim about a test or depending on the class a practical exam to evaluate actual equivalency or accreditation.

  4. Obviously there are a lot of issues with how much an instructor can interact with a class of that size. However, I can’t imagine that anyone receiving that kind of instruction for free would have much grounds to complain about the amount of feedback or personal instruction they are getting. Free online classes strike me as more of a tool to guide a willing and motivated learner than the equivalent of an actual college environment. Not to mention, there has to be some difference in quality to justify the fact that we pay for our education. While I like the idea of information being open and available to the masses, allowing people to educate themselves if they so choose, once a professor is expected to provide feedback and grade assignments, he is giving his time for no reward (admirable, but not a viable long-term plan). Receiving grades and credit goes hand-in-hand with professor time, I think. Credit cannot be awarded for students who do not demonstrate an understanding of the material, and understanding of the material cannot be assessed without work from a professor or TA.

    • I agree with Katie in that if the education is free then the students won’t be able to complain about the feedback they are getting. In addition, I think it is great that students are grading each other because in grading papers and such, they are also learning about the topic and also learning to collaborate, which is an essential tool to know in the real world, not just in college. But still, 40,000 students in one class, that is certainly a lot of people and it would be hard to monitor who actually understands the material or even to just keep track of students who may have stopped “going” to class by not turning in assignments. I feel that if they are able to have high school online for free, then college should be the same. But for me, I would rather pay for a class that I have interaction with a instructor and with other classmates, than sit behind a computer all day doing my school work.

  5. I am so confused about this idea of free college! I have literally never heard of this before. What school do these people technically attend? Can these people get legitimate degrees? More importantly, should these classes be considered for meeting degree requirements? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for cheaper, more accessible education; but I have to question the credibility of these courses. First of all, having students grade other students’ assignments is not a fair grading method because some students will grade harsher than others. I do see how having other students grade each other could be used as a teaching tool, but it is not a fair assessment of the student’s grade. Likewise, having so many students in a class does not allow for feedback from the teacher, which is very important for most classrooms. A lot of students need to have assignments that can be graded with feedback instead of generic computer-graded tests and quizzes.

  6. I definitely support free education; however, I also believe there are some things that just needs to be taught in the classroom. In my opinion, the higher level classes which require a lot of thought and discussion can’t really be taught online, at least not the way it’s currently being done. With 40,000 or more students, one can’t receive the same kind of attention as in the smaller classroom environment. If students are all getting lost in the lecture, the professor won’t know because noone will be able to stand up and ask the question; there’s just too many people out in the audience. The instructor ends up marching through all the material and leaving everyone behind; there’s no way to slow it down. Naturally, people learn when they ask and discuss their thoughts, questions, and ideas. When they interact with each other and actually apply the knowledge, the material being lectured stays in their mind. There’s only a few who are able to get through the entire lecture just listening without asking any questions; the rest must manage learning the material offline through various means. In a way, it’s a lot more individual effort to learn, self-guided and toward one’s individual interests (i.e. more work for the student, less for the instructor).

    It’s not a bad idea, however. It just all really depends; like you said “there are pro’s and con’s.” I think MOOC’s are a great idea for the general studies, especially when the designers can structure the system for learning the basic skills and mechanics of the subject based on the students’ needs. The courses will have to be straightforward with some very well-defined learning goals in place. has helped me a lot in this regard. Also, if is an introductory class, then I can understand why they would offer free online classes to teach students the basic material. Why waste the professors’ time having them teach something the students could learn themselves?

    The problem is not a lot of people know what they have to learn; most classes are taken only due to degree requirements. In general, people have a hard time understanding how they can apply what they are learning to what they want to do in the future. Questions on the discussion board tend to deal with specific questions, usually from the homework or problem sets given by the instructor. On Blackboard, I tried asking a general question before and it literally got deleted by my professor (the nerve of that guy! >.> ). These kind of questions are just better off asked in class or during office hours, something online classes don’t quite offer. Maybe holding several smaller recitation chatroom-like sessions might help in this regard. For grading, as mentioned before, the assignments will have to be straightforward with a clear-cut goal in mind (True/False, Multiple Choice, Fill in the Blank, etc. No short answer). If that can be set, it’s usually a matter the computer can take care of without the need for TAs/peers computing averages.

  7. If it’s going to stay free there will be some serious limits on how it could be improved. They could try to find alternative sources of revenue. I know this may sound weird, but perhaps they could start showing advertisements. (We’re already used to seeing ads in every other free online service we use. Why not ad-funded education?) Fishing for donors wouldn’t hurt either. Either way, they could hire more professors and reduce class sizes to a manageable number, therewith giving students the opportunity to have their questions addressed and their assignments graded by their professors. If nothing can be done about funding, I suppose what they’re doing now is pretty good overall. I think I would encourage professors to make tweaks based on what they think is best for each class. For instance, a professor stuck teaching an English or Art class is probably stuck with having students grade each other, but other courses may be able to get away with just multiple choice quizzes and exams.

  8. This is a cool idea. As Katie said, it’s kind of silly to complain about education when it’s free and voluntary. If I were taking one of these classes, my only motivation would be to learn the material, so I don’t think I would mind a peer grading system or a large number of students, as long as the material were quality. As for the questions on discussion boards, students should be encouraged to try to answer questions. I’ve noticed that most of the questions students ask in my online classes can usually be answered by other students.

    Classes that are giving credit and require payment should probably be held to standards similar to those of other online college courses, with less students or a better grading system for the professor.

  9. Wow! Could you imagine having a class with 39,999 of your closest friends? That’s absolutely insane. I feel like that many students totally diminishes the quality of education. We’ve talked a little before about this whole NCLB notion, and I understand that’s it’s not as present in higher level education, but teachers can’t shy away from the students that need extra help. And it must be so hard to keep a class of THAT size on pace! I really think this turns into a matter of politics and I’m not sure we should open that door.

    Regarding the design, I would hate it if my peers were the ones who graded me, so there’s that. I’m all about the discussion board, but like mharrach1 said, I think that the students should try to answer the questions instead of voting on them for the professor to then respond. So then that would create a forum type of discussion, which I think can totally promote learning.

    In the end, I think a lot of the design can pretty much be overlooked. Like Katie said, don’t complain about something that’s free and voluntary. That being said, I’m going to leave you with this cliche line that all of our parents once told us, but it’s true: you’re going to get out of it what you put in. The same holds true for a student at a $40,000 university, but more so here with MOOCs, simply because it’s rather impossible to tend to the needs of 39,999 other students.

  10. I think this is an excellent idea. The needs of students internationally cannot truly be measured – and through this system anyone with an internet connection can participate. However, as others have before me, I must voice my concern as to the quality of the education received. A class of tens of thousands of people has means that it is physically impossible for the instructor to meet the demands of his or her students.
    That said, access to the internet means access to the infinitely increasing amount of information stored in the cloud. That means it is not unimaginable that a highly motivated individual could pass the course with excellent marks. However, I would worry that student motivation would be very low, due to not ever actually meeting the teacher. As is, this virtual college is an excellent idea – providing education to the masses that may not otherwise have access. But why should they care, if it costs money to actually receive the credit?

  11. I think this is a fascinating subject that really highlights our motivations for being in college and pursuing degrees (in various fields) for four or more years of our lives. Jazmyn’s comments above make this point clear: many people don’t go to college to learn for learning’s sake, they go to receive a piece of paper that says they have a degree because employers accept that degree and will pay them money for having it. Will companies start hiring graduates from online universities? How can these universities be made more credible?
    Another aspect is the amplification of information: one professor can give a lecture to 400 students, but if that lecture isn’t recorded in some way that information cannot spread beyond that time. If 40,000 students are watching the lecture around the world the (theoretical) goal of the university as a disseminator of knowledge is hugely increased.
    What are the implications if this system of education takes on, gains credibility, and starts producing employable graduates? One teacher can now reach, potentially, millions of students around the world, without needing any infrastructure. It seems to me like this would completely destroy jobs for instructors at the lower levels of higher education- anything not at an elite university, and especially at community colleges. This would lead to massive unemployment at a time when there are more PHD graduates in the us than ever before (

  12. I think that one professor and 40,000 students is clearly one unbalanced scale. It sounds like that whomever the internet school doesn’t take education serious. Meaning that one professor can’t do it alone and in fact having to grade assignments or have teachers aid in helping grading, of course there is the problem of who grades harder than others. I think they should keep it to a minimal in student to professor ratio. I think classes such as these are not good for the system. I have a friend who is taking high school classes online and that student to teacher ration is not as high, but it doesn’t give her the same experience in learning the taught materical. It also depends on if the student is a visual, audio, text learner.

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