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The high cost of ‘free’ college

MOOCs are potentially far more expensive than traditional college courses, and far less effective in teaching knowledge and critical-thinking skills.

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

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.

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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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