iTunes U is the current online educational behemoth, with 1 billion downloads and partners that include Oxford, Berkeley and MIT.
Nearly half a century ago, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore famously predicted that chip performance would double every other year. This breathtaking pace of change, unheard of in old-school industries, has characterized not only computer chips but high tech more generally. Such has been the case with MOOCs, the massive open online courses that have become topic number one in higher education.
While online courses have been around for years [see Jon Wiener, in this issue], until recently they’ve been the exclusive province of universities: such courses carry credit, charge tuition and are small enough to enable students to connect with their professors. MOOCs were promoted as the disruptive innovation that would make higher education better, cheaper and more widely available. Not only would they be free and disconnected from a university, but instead of enrolling 100 students, like a typical lecture course, they would enroll hundreds of thousands of students.
MOOC mania hit hard and fast, and hyperbole was the order of the day. Though the phrase itself was coined only in 2008, last year The New York Times proclaimed 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” and MIT Technology Review described MOOCs in a headline as “The Most Important Education Technology in 200 Years.” And the acronym made its debut this year as an entry in the Oxford Dictionaries Online.
The free MOOCs, with their hundreds of thousands of students, are still going strong. But by 2013 the MOOC experiment had morphed into a business model—fee-based courses, far less massive and no longer open, that students could take for college credit.
California, the epicenter of high tech, is the locus of the action. The biggest for-profit start-ups, Coursera and Udacity, are located in Silicon Valley, and Governor Jerry Brown has been a vocal supporter. The ten-campus University of California was early on the scene; Berkeley has partnered with MIT and Harvard to create MOOCs for a worldwide audience; and San Jose State has made itself the test case for delivering MOOCs within the confines of a university.
Enthusiasts see MOOCs as presaging a utopia of affordable higher education for all; critics envision a brave new world in which robotic drills replace intellectual engagement; and skeptics dismiss MOOCs as merely a fad. Across the country, lawmakers and educators are eyeing the paradigm-changing story in California, seeking clues to the future of higher education.
The Lawmakers vs. the Professors
California used to be the world leader in public higher education, but no longer—the state has been defunding its universities for years. Sacramento, which contributed 27 percent of the University of California’s higher education budget in 2000, now provides just over 10 percent; and there have been comparable cutbacks in funding to the California State University and community college systems. Consequently, universities have been forced to sharply raise tuition, admit fewer students and slash courses. Many students, frozen out of the classes they need to graduate, must spend an extra year or more in college, and many drop out.