Imagine a world where college students from anywhere on the planet can pick, enroll in, and take courses online from a menu of universities as easily as they create and play a YouTube playlist. Don’t think too hard—it’s already here.

The educational format known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) allows students from India to Indiana to take free courses from professors at the world’s most prestigious universities.

Mark Walbert, Illinois State University’s associate vice president for Academic Technologies, said there is one huge caveat.

“I have my own personal education list, just like my own personal playlist,” Walbert said, placing himself in a student’s shoes. “But that is part of the problem. I have a personal education list that I can’t get credentials for anywhere.”

That is starting to change.

Online education has been growing in the United States for the last two decades. In 2013 a third of all college students took an online class at least once, according to an annual report from the Babson Survey Research Group. That was the highest percentage in the study’s 11-year history.

student works in a School of Informational Technology classroom

Traditional universities like Illinois State rely on bringing students to campus to learn under professors.

The Internet, however, has yet to upend higher education as it has the newspaper business, music world, and other industries. Traditional universities like Illinois State—where only 6 percent of all classes were offered completely online last school year—rely on bringing students to campus to learn under professors.

“Having some college students myself, I cannot imagine they would be overly successful if they did nothing but online education,” said Daniel Holland, Physics Department chair and the previous Academic Senate chair. “If you look around campuses, there is a lot more here than just classes being taught. And I don’t know that at a completely MOOC environment, where everybody is just watching things on their computers, they would get that.”

Still online is attractive because tuition and student debt have risen dramatically, while states have cut funding. Last year, tuition revenue made up 41 percent of Illinois State’s budget. Only 18 percent of the University’s revenue came from the state, down about half from the turn of the century.

“We need a new revenue model for higher education,” said Illinois Board of Higher Education Executive Director James Applegate. “The good old days are not going to come back in terms of state funding at the levels that used to be funded. We have now hit a ceiling on tuition.”

That’s where MOOCs’ disruptive force comes into play. The idea is simple: Offer free online college classes to whoever wants to enroll. Free and open are what separate them from online universities like the University of Phoenix and could have huge higher education implications. Why spend thousands to attend a traditional college when students can get a self-paced university education with an Internet connection?

That’s a complex question to answer.

The basic MOOC model is for professors to deliver video lectures and assignments online to thousands of students they will never meet.

“We have the technology that will allow us to serve 300,000 students at a time,” said Walbert. “Then you step back and go, ‘Is this learning experience really of value? How do we know?’”

Online classes at ISU graphic

Online classes and blended classes—those that mix online elements into traditional classes—have been growing features of Illinois State for the last 15 years.

Other questions spring up as well. How are so many students evaluated beyond peer-grading or auto-graded tests? How does the professor interact with students who live on different continents, have various levels of expertise, and learn in different ways? And what about a lack of credentials for students who complete courses?

“The most valuable thing MOOCs have done is open up the conversation in higher education around uses of the rapid increases in capacity in technology and around broader access to more affordable, high-quality higher education,” Applegate said.

It’s a conversation that hasn’t yet happened at Illinois State. In 2009 the University’s Distance Education Task Force—the most recent universitywide effort to investigate online education—produced a report that didn’t mention MOOCs, which were in their infancy.

“The Distance Education Task force, for all its work, did not come up with a blueprint in the end that said, ‘This should be our philosophy for online learning, and this is the path we should take to get it us there,’” Walbert said.

Illinois State is among the majority to not yet offer a MOOC. As of 2013, only 5 percent of universities had MOOCs, though the percentage is nearly three times as high for universities with more than 15,000 students, according to the Babson study. A smaller group of universities offers MOOCs for credit.

“We need to start with a conversation on the direction to take in support of online learning in general, MOOCs in particular. When we have a direction to take then we need to talk about how much we are willing and able to invest in the resources needed to take us in that direction,” Walbert said. “But now already the conversation will be different today than what it would have been two years ago.”

MOOCs started in 2008. But it was not until fall 2011 that their impact was widely felt: 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up for an artificial intelligence course taught by Stanford University Professor Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, a director of research at Google.

The following year Thrun created Udacity, a for-profit MOOC provider that is one of the “big three” of MOOC providers, which also includes Coursera, a company founded by two Stanford professors, and edX, a nonprofit backed by MIT and Harvard University. They have partnered with dozens of universities—Princeton, Duke, Florida—and have reached millions of students.

“All of a sudden a lot of people started paying attention. What is this new thing?” Applegate said. “Well it wasn’t new. It was just that some of our very visible, top-notch institutions were getting in the game.”

Things were going so swimmingly that Thrun boasted in Wired magazine that in 50 years Udacity might be one of only 10 higher education institutions left in the world.

The shine quickly rubbed off the new toy. In 2013 San Jose State University worked with Udacity to offer for-credit math courses at a low price to students inside and outside the university. The deal soured in less than a year because of low pass rates. Faculty also blasted the university’s experimental edX courses for turning them into mere facilitators of predesigned courses.

Critics have claimed that the MOOC movement—backed by venture capitalists and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—is pushing for the corporatization of public higher education behind the guise of offering free education. There was concern the higher education system will split into tiers: a traditional education for those who can afford it and a mediocre MOOC education for the less fortunate. There are also worries that faculty members could be relegated to the role of mere facilitators in MOOCs or be dramatically reduced.

“I think if we tried to go 100 percent MOOCs, it would basically be dismantling one of the best education systems ever created,” Holland said. “I think MOOCs are a good addition if you are an extraordinarily motivated student or if perhaps this is the only way that you can get to a university or higher education. It has a place.”

MOOCs are good for continuing education or for students who are curious about a particular school or teacher, said Linda Summers, coordinator of blended and online instruction at Illinois State’s Center of Teaching, Learning, and Technology. She compared MOOCs to correspondence courses.

“It is good for developing countries curious about American education, for example. It’s good for training large numbers of people. It is good for certain certifications,” she said. “It’s not a degree program.”

That changed last year when Georgia Tech, in collaboration with Udacity and AT&T, launched a MOOC-based master’s degree in computer science. The program has two main differences from a typical MOOC: It is not free and massive, though it is cheaper and is expected to become larger than the on-campus program. The White House has recommended that regional accreditors be flexible when setting standards for online degrees.

“I think where it gets really rocky with MOOCs is number one, we don’t have a lot of policy. We don’t have regional accreditors who are very familiar with MOOCs,” said Vickie Cook, the director of the University of Illinois Springfield’s Center for Online Learning, Research and Service. “And we have MOOCs all over the board. So the whole idea of standardizing the MOOC for credit is going to be quite difficult to meet the accrediting bodies’ requirements.”

Overcoming that challenge will be important, Applegate said, because the credentials and degrees are what impact people’s futures. A lack of interaction between faculty and students could hold back the credentialing.

A variety of online tools can facilitate student-to-student communication as long as they are taking the MOOCs simultaneously. But how does a professor interact with thousands of students?

“Students don’t get that one-one-one interaction. They can’t raise their hand and say, ‘I have a question. Can you clarify?’ That is the interaction we have here on a campus,” Summers said. “When we facilitate the online, we model the traditional classroom as much as we can. The interaction is still there.”

Low completion rates are yet another issue hounding MOOCs, with less than 20 percent of all students commonly completing courses.

The flip side is that even if a class had a completion rate of only 10 percent out of an enrollment of 300,000 students, a university still educated far more people than it would have otherwise.

“The completion rate for MOOCs is quite low,” Cook said. She said students are not there necessarily to progress through the course; many students are looking for content that they can pull out and use, and then move on.

Providers are still trying to figure out how to make money. Some charge students for a certificate upon completing a class. Some conduct corporate training and act as headhunters for companies looking to recruit from specific classes.

MOOCs are an expensive endeavor, for example, costing Coursera $50,000 to purchase computer time on the Amazon cloud for every course it offers. Illinois State would likely have to enter a provider contract to offer MOOCs because the technical infrastructure to support a large online class doesn’t exist.

MOOCs have gained traction in a few Illinois universities, though none offer the courses for credit, Cook said. Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have contracts with Coursera and The University of Chicago has joined edX, while the University of Illinois Springfield has offered its own MOOCs on the Emancipation Proclamation and education.

Walbert doesn’t see a place for MOOCs at Illinois State presently. Long term, however, he can envision a world in which students take them for foundation courses and then attend a traditional college to finish their degree.

“MOOCs are becoming common enough that where it fits with the college’s goal for online learning they can easily find a way—one of several different ways—to make that happen without reinventing the wheel each time or losing complete control of your classes or whatever,” he said. “It’s not saving the world. And neither will it destroy the world. There is some potential like any change in the format for education.”

Illinois State Technology Professor Borinara Park said MOOCs could be a way for the University to market itself to out-of-state students. Park also thinks MOOCs and other forms of online education present a great opportunity to gather analytics about how students are learning. The University could review student performance annually to determine strengths and weaknesses and then customize their learning.

Whether or not MOOCs gain in prominence, online formats will become more common in the classroom, according to Illinois State Special Education Professor Craig Blum, who has written a book about instructional technology in early childhood classrooms. Professors could use a flipped classroom format more often, where the lecture is online and students spend class time asking questions and meeting with the professor.

“In 20 years, all classes will have some integrated technological component,” Blum said. “I think the residential school will survive as long as it integrates some of these things and becomes more flexible in meeting people’s needs. Most of the students don’t want be treated one in 40,000.”

With the future of MOOCs still so uncertain, the impact remains a mystery. Walbert voices the need to watch out for a Microsoft or Google university.

“A big stumbling block is culturally we have moved since the ‘60s that higher ed is about job training,” Walbert said. “That is the tension is that we really are going to see. Is higher ed about job training or is higher ed about training future leaders? And MOOCs probably—at least at the moment because I don’t know what it will look like in 20 years—are more focused on training.”

Jamie Penrod, who oversees Mennonite College of Nursing’s online RN to B.S.N. program, offers another caution regarding how MOOCs could forever alter the traditional campus collegiate experience:

“When we no longer need multimillion-dollar gymnasiums with climbing walls because we don’t need walls, it’s going to change higher education completely.”

Kevin Bersett can be reached at

2 thoughts on “Illinois State eyes future as online courses reshape higher ed

  1. brucebolton says:

    >Mark Walbert, Illinois State University’s associate vice president for Academic Technologies, said there is one huge caveat.

    >“I have my own personal education list, just like my own personal playlist,” Walbert said, placing himself in a student’s shoes. “But >that is part of the problem. I have a personal education list that I can’t get credentials for anywhere.”

    While it doesn’t offer a way to get credit at the moment, CourseBuffet ( organizes MOOCs in a course catalog format. It seems MOOCs while not replacing the traditional college experience will be a legitimate alternative for some.