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The high cost of ‘free’ college

REUTERS/Eric Thayer
if “massive open online courses” sound too good to be true, it’s because they are.

Over the past year, there has been an explosion of interest in so-called “massive open online courses” or MOOCs, for short. These courses promise to open college education to a much wider audience, teaching tens of thousands of students at a time. Usually taught by a famous professor from a prestigious university, these courses have spawned interest across the country and led to the creation of several for-profit companies, including Coursera.

Matthew F. Filner
Matthew F. Filner

Like a straight-line wind, interest in MOOCs has been overwhelming in many policy circles. Higher-education policymakers such as Larry Pogemiller (Minnesota commissioner of higher education) and state Sen. Terri Bonoff are so enamored with MOOCs that they inserted support for MOOCs into the final omnibus higher education bill, which is now law, last legislative session.

Before we commit our taxpayer dollars to this latest fad in higher education, we should contrast the rhetoric of MOOCs with the reality of effective teaching and learning. I contend that, if MOOCs sound too good to be true, it’s because they are. They are potentially far more expensive than traditional college courses, and far less effective in teaching the knowledge and critical-thinking skills that we expect from a college education.

Defining ‘tuition-free’

In the higher education bill, MOOCs are labeled as “tuition-free educational courses” (SF 1236; line 30.31). The language defining “tuition-free” is telling. According to the bill, tuition-free means that “required fees and other required charges paid by the student for the course do not exceed two percent of the most recent average undergraduate tuition” [according to] the U.S. Department of Education (lines 30.34-31.5). Because the current “average undergraduate tuition” is $22,000, for-profit companies may charge up to $440 per course in the form of fees.

While that may not seem very much for a semester-long course, the bill did not define what a “course” is. These MOOCs could include hourly, daily, or weekly short-courses, and a full semester might require numerous “courses.” The law therefore allows these fees to add up to thousands of dollars per course.

Even if we had a clear definition of a “course,” we might wonder whether a $440 MOOC was worth the cost. This leads us to explore what, exactly, a student might “learn” from taking one of these courses. A MOOC is essentially an on-line lecture series given by a famous scholar. Like any lecture, the “student” is passive, expected to learn by listening. While I enjoy a good lecture as much as anyone, and I have spent many hours of my life listening to lectures, it is clear that lectures are ineffective in teaching critical thinking and for building key citizenship skills. 

No give and take

The evidence is overwhelming that the best way to teach students the most vital higher order thinking skills is not through a passive lecture style. While many of us spent hours in college listening to a professor lecture at us, very few professors lecture for hours. In fact, most of us teach critical thinking skills in a dynamic and interactive conversation with our students and help them to develop their citizenship skills. The vital process of give and take that occurs in a dynamic classroom is entirely absent in a MOOC.

Of course, MOOCs advocates respond by claiming that this is a unique opportunity for students to learn from the great scholars of the world. Further, as Commissioner Pogemiller recently said, “if it’s good enough for Harvard, it should be good enough for us.” The problem with this way of thinking is it entices students to think that they way to learn is passively from an “expert,” rather than engaging critically with the material and learning how to think for themselves — both essential citizenship skills. 

The cost of so-called “free” courses, therefore, is enormous. If we ask students to leave their thinking at the door, they might be entertained during their MOOC show. They might even learn something. Nevertheless, the cost of this learning will be a significant investment in time and money that undermines the values of higher education — skills such as reading, writing, and critical thinking that are essential to professional and civic success. Minnesota would be well served to “say no” to MOOCs while there is still time.

Matthew Filner is a political science professor and chair of the Social Science Department at Metropolitan State University. His views do not necessarily represent the views of his employer.


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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/13/2013 - 10:07 pm.

    I’d rather learn online

    by passively watching and listening to an expert in his field than sit in a classroom and directly interact with a TA who can barely speak English. In fact, I’ve sat in classes where I knew more about the subject than the TA!

    I’ve heard this argument before, typically advanced by classroom instructors like Filner, but it doesn’t hold water. Most university courses today are passive lectures delivered by graduate students who can’t teach their way out of a paper bag. And what “critical thinking skills” are taught in a political science course that features a partisan professor spouting partisan ideas? There are no political agnostics teaching Political Science.

    The fact is, I don’t like MOOCs either but for a real reason. They charge no tuition to the students, who could be in another country, for all we know, but it costs the Minnesota taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars to deliver it. Only a public employee who has no regard for taxpayer money would overlook that most tangible flaw in the model.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/14/2013 - 10:07 am.

      Where to begin–

      Starting at the end, many MOOCs are taught by for-profit corporations like Coursera (see paragraph one in the article.).
      The U is involved with Coursera (see details at)
      It’s an investment in the future.

      Few University lectures are taught by graduate students; they mainly lead discussion groups and grade papers.
      Like the old lectures in Northrup Hall in the sixties, some MOOCs do consist of nothing but talking heads. Again this goes back to the seventies and the old fantasy of the ‘prof in a can’ raised by video technology.
      However, a well designed MOOC consists of live and online discussion and tutoring as well as the core presentation; much more than a talking head.

      Tell me, Dennis; when is the last time you took a university class for credit?
      Anyplace other than the U (of Minnesota, that is)?
      Was your idea of a ‘foreign’ student someone from Iowa? or (horrors) Noo Yawk?
      Might broaden you a bit to get out of your box.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/14/2013 - 08:29 am.

    Some useful info here, but a false assumption, too.

    I didn’t know about this algorithm for determining the maximum cost of a MOOC in the education bill. Surely, we will see some flim-flam operators enter this space.

    But your declaration that “In fact, most of us teach critical thinking skills in a dynamic and interactive conversation with our students..” is something not often seen in public higher education institutions. With enormous class sizes, these institutions are in fact doing exactly what you accuse the for-profit MOOCs of doing – piling huge numbers of students into highly profitable classes.

    At the U. of M., they used to fill hundreds of seats in an auditorium hall for underclass lectures – and the numerous additional students would watch a video feed in ancillary rooms. All these students paid the full per credit tuition rate, same as if they were in a class of 12 with the professor at the head of the table. Isn’t this kind of education exactly what you are criticizing ? (I don’t know if they still operate this way, but if not, they’d have abandoned a real money-maker.)

    Also, you criticize the idea that “the way to learn is passively from an “expert,” rather than engaging critically with the material and learning how to think for themselves “.

    Actually, what an expert really has to offer is a MODEL of critical engagement with the material and the people involved in the learning process. Many students have never seen this. I’m sure this is one of the values YOUR students acquire !! I agree with your implication that learning to think for themselves, and think critically, is the root value of higher education for students.

    P.S. I hope you get paid for your work at Metro State ! I hear your chief administrator is holding back paychecks to help with the cash flow, an outrage !

  3. Submitted by Patricia Kelley on 09/15/2013 - 02:05 pm.

    Question regarding costs

    As a graduate student studying education, MOOC is yet another example of the integration of technology and education. The issues raised in this article added to my understanding of the concept.

    I do have a question about Professor Filner’s math, however. He cites the $22,000 cost of tuition for the average college student. This would be the annual tuition cost. Two percent is $440 but that would be annual tuition, not per course. My tuition is about $1700 per course which would be $34 per course.

    The issue of its effectiveness with teaching higher level thinking skills remains. However, since cost was one of the author’s main points, it is important that the numbers are straight.

  4. Submitted by Jeffrey Kolnick on 09/15/2013 - 12:24 pm.

    good enough for Harvard?

    Thanks for this excellent essay. You are right that most professors are teaching small classes and in an interactive way. This is because only a small percentage college of students attend research universities like the University of Minnesota where they encounter the large lecture hall. Most students are learning in small classes at school like those in MnSCU or at liberal arts colleges.

    But it is the Orwellian nature of charging hundreds of dollars for “free” courses that is deeply troubling. Not only does the law hide the truth with a misleading label, but the idea that taking a MOOC is like a Harvard education is deceptive.

    Professor Lilian Taiz put it best when she remarked, “We … continue to be concerned that folks might imagine they are getting an Ivy League education, when in fact, they are watching other people get an Ivy League education.”

    At Harvard, students meet the fancy professors on-line students only watch. Residential students at Harvard mingle in a rich intellectual environment where they live with and network with the best and brightest of their generation. A MOOC is not real education and not even remotely like what goes on at Harvard.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/15/2013 - 06:10 pm.

      In Fact

      Most college students attend public institutions like the MsSCU schools, which are neither research institutions nor small private colleges.
      Having taught at MSU Mankato for 40 years, I know that most classes are not small, and are getting larger as budgets are cut, since payroll is the largest discretionary budget item.
      We may not have classes of a thousand (I doubt the U has many of the either these days), but classes of 30 to 100 don’t allow for significant student-teacher interaction.
      Most of the FTE’s come from the large intro courses.

  5. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 09/16/2013 - 12:05 pm.

    Books aren’t interactive either

    Where did we get this blanket notion that listening to a lecture is a passive experience? And how is listening to a lecture all that different from reading a book? (How is it *any* different if you’re visually impaired and use audio transcription?)

    I don’t know about others, but the most challenging class I ever had was in high school. It was a university-level Humanities class taught by an old-school instructor from the UK who taught in British university-lecture style. Let me assure you, it was anything but a passive experience. My brain reels at the memory. I loved it though and thank my lucky stars every year for the skills that class developed.

    And why is it that we have always lauded the individual who has fought their way out of disenfranchisement by “reading everything I could get my hands on?” Do we stop and qualify that achievement by saying “Well, that really wasn’t the best way to do it, you know, because it wasn’t an interactive experience.”

    Teaching techniques innumerable and varied. Some subjects are best taught in lecture form; others are not. Some students have access to a formal education; others do not. Some people get more from just reading; others need to be more “hands on.”

    If Web lectures replace anything, they will replace the book, not the forum experience….

    The book: the media Aristotle deplored because it wasn’t interactive.

  6. Submitted by Bruce Lindberg on 09/18/2013 - 12:20 pm.

    Content is only one dimension of learning

    Like reading a book or watching a lecture on TED, a MOOC is primarily about presentation of content, which has become essentially free in the Internet Age. But the organization and presentation of content is only one of several added-value dimensions provided by higher education, whether in a classroom or online, and it’s those other dimensions that are mostly missing from the MOOC experience: the synthesis and application of knowledge; assessment and feedback on performance; extension of learning and insight through interaction with peers and faculty; assistance with specific skill development; documentation and recording of learning outcomes; and other benefits that arise from being part of a “learning community” that in many cases provide opportunities for individuals to experience diversity and other manifestations of humanity missing in the “electronic” world.

    A series of MOOCs will not lead to a coherent set of competencies that prepares individuals for a career, an occupational category or even a specific job role, so to equate these with an organized program of study at reputable college or university is not accurate, nor is it the easy “answer” to closing the “skills gap.” To discover the difference, I would suggest visiting a contemporary college or university class taught by one of the many dedicated and talented faculty members who I know work at both our public and nonprofit private colleges in Minnesota.

    MOOCs have a role in our overall pursuit of lifelong learning and may even be integrated with more traditional programs of study, but they are not a substitute for a quality, formal education.

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