Public Initiative

Amid doomsday prophesies about their imminent extinction, public universities have shown surprising initiative and business savvy in staying afloat by joining the popular new trend in online education. A number of public universities across the country, including Arizona State University, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Arkansas, are planning on converting certain introductory courses into massive open online courses, meaning they will be free to anyone anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Until recently, the development of online education platforms has been mainly the domain of elite private institutions such as Harvard, which partnered with MIT last May to launch the free online education platform edX, offering participants a taste of a premier education without the official degree. The new MOOC2Degree program currently being pioneered by public universities goes one step further by encouraging participants to register for full, paid degrees after completing the free introductory courses.

Unlike Harvard, whose experiment in online education has been characterized by rhetoric of educational accessibility, the introduction MOOC courses seems to be driven at least in part by a need for new sources of revenue. Free introductory courses are advantageous for universities because they are prime bait for enrollment MOOC2Degree programs, which are the universities’ real focus. Yet even if the goals of Harvard’s edX and the MOOC2Degree program are not entirely aligned, impact of the two programs is effectively the same: Free education is made available to students who could not access it before. MOOC2Degree also has the added benefit of allowing students to preview a field for free before pursuing additional coursework, and it seems to be doing so with resounding success: Between 72 and 84 percent of students who successfully complete the introductory courses reportedly go on to take additional coursework. For these reasons, MOOC courses and the MOOC2Degree program should be regarded as a uniformly positive development in digital education.

While online education can never replace the full educational experience of a degree earned on a college campus, any initiative that opens educational opportunities to more people is necessarily a commendable one. And if the MOOC2Degree program becomes a source of significant revenue for financially strapped universities, this is all the more reason to applaud its success.

Of course, one might fear that there is the risk of these free introductory courses providing false advertisement for a degree program that is comparatively worse, conferring a meaningless diploma for a fee. Indeed, universities connected with for-profit companies notoriously have low graduation rates, low employment rates, and high student debt rates. But simply packaging already extant online programs into the MOOC2Degree is unlikely to do any harm. Credit will only be awarded to those who complete the program successfully, while those who fail to do so will not lose any money on introductory courses. We must applaud any sensible business strategy that helps universities and students alike.

A current complaint of many online students is the lack of accreditation they receive for completing online courses, even those offered by prestigious universities like Stanford and Harvard, whose online courses are not certified with degrees. With the MOOC2Degree program, public universities are forging an additional and much-needed pathway to achievement for the underserved students for whom they were originally created.