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People Can't Afford College, so They're Taking Free College Classes Online

Massive Online Open Courses could spark a college affordability renaissance, but they're also probably too good to be true.
Images via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons.

When Eric Rabkin, Professor Emeritus at University of Michigan, was asked to create and administer the first writing-intensive online course in the world, it was his deep belief in public education that propelled him to say yes. He understood that all the entities involved – the University of Michigan, the online platform Coursera, the students, and himself – would all have very different goals in this endeavor. But the bottom line was that, in its first iteration in 2012, this Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) would provide 40,000 students with a free educational opportunity.


"It may sound romantic," said Rabkin, "but this is what I believe. I went to Stuyvesant High School, arguably the best high school in the country. I went to Cornell, half of which is public. I went to University of Iowa for the Writers Workshop. There's a thread, and it's not the bestness. It's the publicness. I truly believe I have benefitted endlessly from public education."

So he wanted to try it, to see if he could participate in the democratization of education. The MOOC widely recognized as the first of its kind was launched by Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online, or ALISON, in 2007. Five years later, the University of Michigan and Coursera were partnering to offer the first Writing Intensive MOOC. The way Rabkin saw it, it was an experiment, but one that could pay off in a huge way.

"There are 7 billion people in this world, and if we could reach one-third who are not able to access the education of the first world, we could double the number of educated people on this planet."

"Isaac Asimov suggested that the invention of eyeglasses is what created the Renaissance," said Rabkin. "As the technology of eyeglasses diffused through Europe, the Renaissance diffused."

When considering whether he wanted to come up with a MOOC, he thought about the diffusing of information on a massive scale.

"There are 7 billion people in this world," he said, "and if we could reach one-third who are not able to access the education of the first world, we could double the number of educated people on this planet. It could be a new renaissance."


There's been plenty of debate as to whether online education is the renaissance people once expected.

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According to a 2014 study through Columbia University's Teachers College by PhD Fiona M Hollands, "MOOCs are providing educational opportunities to millions of individuals across the world, however most MOOC participants are already well-educated and employed."

A recommendation from this study was to "find ways to confer economic value on MOOC completion, such as providing employer-recognized credentials."

The question of credentials brings the conversation to a much more nuanced place. In recent years, many credentials, like MOOC badges, have emerged to offer participants something to put on their resume. In a 2016 article by US News and World Reports, Daphne Koller, president and co-founder of Coursera, confirmed that learners were responding to these types of offerings.

There's been plenty of debate as to whether online education is the renaissance people once expected.

"We see a larger and larger number of our learners, especially in courses that confer direct benefits – for instance, to one's career – opting to pay for the certificate, posting it to their LinkedIn profile, using it in the job search and so on," said Koller.

But while the education is free and available to all, the credentials are not. And does the credential accurately reflect what the student has gained, and therefore has to offer?


"We're in a transition period," said Rabkin, "where more and more institutions are putting people into positions based less on credentials and more on demonstration of mastery. The availability of education conveniently and inexpensively makes it possible for more people to develop a mastery, and we can have a more efficient culture doing all kinds of things better."

But, he warns, to try to distill all that positive impact into a badge or a line on a resume, especially as a means of profit for the online education system, could be misguided. A class, a trip to Spain, or reading a series of books could make someone more valuable to an employer, or it could not, depending how they processed that information and how they're using it.

"The education itself is not what they're asking for $75 for," said Rabkin.

But the education itself isn't the only consideration when considering taking a MOOC. You can get access to the books, the lectures, even to online forums of discussion. But the community, the conversations, the culture – these are things that can't be replicated. They're also things that weren't necessarily the "college experience" before MOOCs.

"Eight or nine years ago, 25 percent of college-going population was going to a residential institution," said Rabkin. "The other 75 percent were going to commuter schools or community college. 75 percent were not watching football on Saturdays. So that was already true."


And just as there are many versions of what the brick-and-mortar college experience looks like, there are also many versions of the online experience. The social aspect of college education goes beyond keg parties and football games, to the intellectual engagement of peers. While some skeptics say that the face to face engagement of a classroom setting is lost online, others argue that this can happen in even more measurable ways online, because you can easily monitor who has participated and participants can comment concurrently, expressing their views with immediacy and depth. And while some say knowing each other in person is crucial, others would argue the anonymity can help the learning environment.

READ MORE: In 2017, College Affordability Is Far From a Reality in the US

"It's harder to understand the totality of the life of the student," said Rabkin. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

"No one is going to look at a 35-year-old single mom and say, 'What's that old woman doing in our accounting class?'" said Rabkin. "But the kids in that class also won't hear the discussion of a passionate person who explains to them the importance of money in running a life. It's a two-edged sword."

The goal of online education, according to Rabkin, isn't to make sure everyone has any one version of college education, but rather that every person gets knowledge when they ask for it.

"The real promise of MOOCs or tailored smaller online courses," he said, "is to make it possible for people to be educated."