Abram Olmstead  | February 11, 2014

What’s a MOOC? Maybe the Future of Education

When Mimi Fisher bought a discount card to support her local high school’s football team, she never imagined she was buying the ticket to fulfilling her longtime dream of earning a college degree.

Yet that’s exactly what happened. When Fisher, a 49-year-old real estate agent from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, used one of the discount codes on the card, she received an offer to earn a bachelor’s degree online at Patten University for $199 per month. After discovering the degree was fully accredited—one of two online degree programs offered through UniversityNow—she enrolled last November.

“I knew I couldn’t go into debt for college, and the fact that the program is online is amazing,” Fisher says. “I don’t mind putting in the hours, but it has to be on my schedule. If I can’t sleep, I can get up at 2 a.m. to study, and don’t have to worry about whether I’ll get credit for my time.”

Fisher’s story is emblematic of the way the Internet is poised to revolutionize the way we learn, after already having transformed the way we live and work. While the eventual outcome of this technology-driven educational experiment remains to be seen, with some of the brightest educators and entrepreneurs joining the effort, it seems likely that — once the dust settles — students young and old have only to gain.

A MOOC Revolution in the Classroom and the Boardroom

The advent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is at the heart of this revolution — and the subject of seemingly interminable debate. Millions of students — and millions of dollars in funding from some of the nation’s top universities — are flocking to MOOCs from industry leaders like EdXCoursera, Udacity, and Academic Partnerships, which are rolling out free training and education materials from major universities. But the programs, at least in their current incarnation, remain a less-than-ideal solution. A recent study from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found that among a million MOOC users between June 2012 and June 2013, course completion rates averaged just 4%.

Yet experts in the field stress the need to look at the bigger picture. “The ‘college’ version of MOOCs to which traditional educators are reacting is about the fact that they’re open to anyone, and free,” said Michael Echols, executive vice president of the Human Capital Lab at Bellevue University and a leading researcher on the impact of learning on human capital. “These factors threaten the traditional business model of higher education, including the economics of campuses, donors, and — most of all — tenured faculty with guarantees of lifetime employment.”

While the current business model is not yet economically viable because it doesn’t generate enough revenue to foster innovation and new curriculum development, Echols predicts that will change. And he isn’t alone in believing the MOOCs are here to stay: Google recently announced its plan to partner with EdX to build an open-source MOOC platform that will enable anyone — universities, corporations, and individuals alike — to create online courses.

In the business world, there’s no question of the power of MOOCs to bring knowledge and training to the masses. “The MOOC battle in higher education is a political and economic debate, focused on the use of technology as an alternative to traditional, accredited classroom learning,” said Echols, adding that no such debate exists about the benefits of online training for employees.

He points to Verizon, one of the Human Capital Lab’s clients, as an example. The company uses MOOCs to train tens of thousands of field personnel who need to stay up to speed on rapidly changing technology. The platform, available 24/7, includes not just course content, but learning assessments and performance records. While not “massive” when compared with the potential higher-ed MOOCs,” Echols said, “being able to service tens of thousands at a moment’s notice is truly impactful relative to a traditional classroom-based lecture that traditionally services about 25.”

Reinventing the Education System

As is often the case, the ideal way to incorporate online learning into the “traditional” teaching methods may lie somewhere in between purely Web-based study and the classroom. The flipped classroom model, where students watch lectures online outside the classroom and reserve class time for “homework” — such as labs and other interactive activities — is gaining steam. The Flipped Learning Network now has a membership of 16,000 “flipped educators” dedicated to helping others to embrace the model, and is adding a thousand teachers a month to its ranks. While dedicated research on its effectiveness is just beginning, a recent survey commissioned by the network found that 88% of teachers surveyed said their job satisfaction had improved using the flipped model. Perhaps more importantly, they also reported a 67% increase in student test scores and an 80% improvement in student attitudes.

In higher education, an entirely new online model — which Fisher has embraced — is emerging that may prove to be the most innovative, and cost-effective, disruptor yet. UniversityNow, a “social venture” in California whose mission is to ensure that a quality post-secondary education is available to people everywhere, is offering its two accredited, online programs for under $6,000 a year through its Patten University and New Charter University affiliates.

Gene Wade, UNow’s founder, notes the fact that working adults over 30 with a family now comprise the majority of learners are driving the uptick in college enrollment today — and forcing a reinvention of the system.

“MOOCs took Ivy League content and put it online, which is a great first step — but they do nothing for people who are trying to get a degree affordably,” said Wade. The cost of college is becoming simply untenable to most Americans, he says, with one year of college at a public university averaging over $12,000 in 2013 — and projected to more than triple over the next 18 years.

The average UNow student is a working 38-year-old with a family who’s trying to earn an undergraduate degree. The self-paced, technology-enabled online platform is designed for competency-based learning and provides real-time feedback to both students and their instructors — sidestepping the “lack of human interaction” factor cited by many students as a reason for giving up on MOOCs. The formula appears to be working: since launching just over a year ago, UNow’s persistence rate among students is nearly 94%.

UNow’s model is poised to impact the business world, as well. Wade says he constantly hears Fortune 500 companies complain that they face of shortage of talent in filling management positions. “These companies need to get the folks off the frontline and into management, and that takes, at a minimum, a college degree,” says Wade. So UNow is working with companies such as AT&T and FedEx to make its schools available to employees through the companies’ tuition assistance programs. With more than 1,000 students currently enrolled and the waiting list growing, Wade expects UNow’s student ranks to double every few months.

While online education is in its relative infancy, it’s clear that the most exciting and impactful innovations are yet to come. For Fisher, enrolling at Patten is the first step toward her goal of becoming a lawyer by 2020, and she plans to get her law degree online as well, at Concord University.

“Online education is going to be very big,” she said. “There’s no reason that it can’t be.”