The Dean's Insight - The Rise of MOOCs

CLS Dean James Pappas Friends of the College of Liberal Studies (CLS) might be interested to learn that some members of the Florida House of Representatives are hoping to create a new university dedicated to online learning, despite the fact that the state already has 12 institutions of higher education. Responding primarily to the demands of constituents concerned about increasing tuition costs, the legislators indicated they are interested in providing “a high-quality education at a fraction of the cost.” (Orlando Sentinel, 1/5/13)

The Rise of MOOCs

This development is neither isolated nor surprising. Throughout the country, legislators, educators, government officials, and others are reacting not only to simple economics but to seismic shifts occurring in higher education. In truth, these shifts began some time ago, but they have become more prominent due to a number of other factors, one of which is the emergence of massive open online courses, nicknamed MOOCs.

The story of the artificial intelligence course offered at Stanford by Sebastian Thrum is now widely known. More than 160,000 students enrolled in that free online course. Subsequently, MOOC providers like Coursera (led by Princeton, Stanford, Michigan, and Penn), EdX (Harvard and MIT), iTunes U, Khan Academy, and many others emerged, all providing free educational resources to adult and other learners.

In other words, elite institutions are offering high quality online curricula and building close linkages with employers to educate working adults. At the same time, MOOCs are providing general education level courses at a significantly lower cost (even taking into consideration assessment fees) perhaps limiting the need for traditional auditorium-sized general educational courses on campuses. While most MOOCs are not currently offered for credit, many parallel developments are in the works that will make including MOOCs on transcripts part of students’ higher education experience. The president of Northeastern University went so far as to declare that with MOOCs “we’re witnessing the end of higher education as we know it.” This bit of overstatement reminds me of the somewhat alarmist response made in 1885 by an individual concerned about the rising number of correspondence courses offered by schools: “The day is coming when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the classrooms of our academies and colleges; when the students who shall recite by correspondence will far outnumber those who make oral recitations.”

The MOOCs story and the report from Florida reflect a growing demand for higher education to be more responsive to students and available for a more economical cost (and “free” is about as economical as you can get!). According to a survey released by Northwestern University, 83 percent of Americans say higher education must innovate in order for the United States to remain globally competitive.


Other transformations of higher education were addressed in a fall issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (“College, Reinvented,” 10/14/12). Noting that “the federal government has required colleges to post net-price calculators on their Web sites,” the authors of the series of articles express sensitivity to the financial challenges a college degree pose for individuals and families. They are also sensitive to the pragmatic needs of employers and the importance of equipping individuals for the workplace. In this regard, a movement is a foot to replace grades (or to complement them) with “badges.” A badge would indicate proficiency in a particular college-level skill or concept. One professor suggests that “badges are in a way modules, and in a way you could build your own degree.” On a practical level, a particular badge—or a collection of badges—might demonstrate proficiency to a current or future employer.

There are no plans at present to issue badges by the College of Liberal Studies. This does not mean the idea is without merit. It is conceivable that badges—or certificates—might be awarded for students who successfully complete a course in conflict management or negotiation or cultural sensitivity. In fact, CLS does offer a graduate certificate program in Administrative Leadership that students may complete on their way toward a master’s degree. Such a certificate is a kind of badge, indicating proficiency in skills possessed by successful administrators.

We in the college see these developments in higher education as useful endorsements that college and university programs matter. Thanks to the development of its online degree programs, CLS has enjoyed dramatic growth over the past decade. Today, most of our nearly 2,000 students are online learners. The rapid growth of MOOCs notwithstanding, CLS has engaged in a carefully planned program development process that is responding to the needs of current students and the demands of the educational marketplace while drawing on the strengths of our faculty. Interestingly, our tuition is below most local and national online providers, especially when compared with institutions of similar reputations and faculty. When many public media stories tend to cite tuition rates for Ivy League and private schools, it is evident that CLS provides an excellent education at reasonable costs.

In the Footsteps of Banking

At a recent conference a speaker suggested that universities might be like the banking industry a decade ago. Once upon a time, bankers dictated how they would provide service. They built huge edifices with large lobbies and grand offices for their presidents, established bankers’ hours for staff convenience, and treated customers with disdain. Today, the banking industry consists of ATM machines, Walmart kiosks, and online services. Higher education is on the brink of a similar transformation. CLS is trying to respond to the dramatic changes in our university while still providing valuable learning outcomes for our students. The important thing to keep in mind about banking is that it still is as useful as ever, but now it is more responsive and effective. We in CLS have the same goal.

Signature of James P. Pappas, Dean

James P. Pappas, Ph.D.
Vice President for Outreach and
Dean, College of Liberal Studies

Update: The College of Liberal Studies was renamed the College of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2017. 

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The College of Professional and Continuing Studies is a fully accredited academic unit of the University of Oklahoma, offering 100% online, hybrid and onsite degrees for working adults and non-traditional students.