CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- My formal education ended almost 40 years ago. Since that time, TVs have gotten larger and computers have gotten amazingly smaller. At my age, it's true that now I may be more concerned about my Social Security options than the latest smartphone applications, but I still hope that I haven't stopped wanting to learn.
Late last year, I first became aware of something called a massive open online course (MOOC). This concept of no-cost uncontrolled internet access to quality learning opportunities initially appeared in the fall of 2011 and began to mature early in 2012 with the emergence of the university-associated companies Coursera, Udacity, and edX. The first of these courses, "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence", had an enrollment of 160,000 and many others followed quickly. Observing this, The New York Times dubbed 2012 "The Year of the MOOC" and Time Magazine said that MOOCs open the door to the "Ivy League of the Masses".
After hearing and reading these reports, even as one who is not the most tech-savvy, I decided to see for myself. The sign-up was easy and the selection of courses was numerous. Many seemed interesting, but I was intrigued by one titled "Game Theory," partially because of my awareness of West Virginia's own John Nash. Over the next seven weeks I found that I could watch the 15- minute well-delivered lectures at my leisure and then repeat them if necessary. The testing was weekly with a final exam at the end of the course. Needless to say, I found it quite challenging and soon realized that this was more than remedial math. Although I'm not sure just how much of the information I'll retain in two years, the exercise was unquestionably rewarding.
Because of this experience, I have since taken courses in ancient history, health policy, and anthropology. The good news is that they're free, incredibly convenient, and the lecturers are all extraordinary teachers. The bad news is that a high percentage of the tens of thousands who start a class don't finish, the personal touch from both teachers and other students is limited, and it's very difficult to control cheating on the assessments. Although there are some charges for services such as certification, another concern is that giving away access to these high-powered courses is not a sustainable business model. It's been my belief, though, that once the technology of MOOCs was refined, they would market their product to academic institutions, and, not surprisingly, Georgia Tech has just recently contracted with Coursera.
Today, undoubtedly, one of America's greatest dilemmas is the excessive cost of higher education. As years pass, it seems that progressively fewer of our young people can afford the post-high school learning experience. This loss of human capital is even more distressing, since, even if they all rise to their potential, there are not enough 20-somethings to replace retiring baby boomers. So, the pressure is on for colleges and universities to be aggressive about controlling costs and then make their product both affordable and effective.
From a selfish standpoint, MOOCs have provided me an incredibly user-friendly way to pursue "lifelong learning." Sure, you can read good books, but you don't get the feedback and evaluation or have such great visuals. Yet, can this new medium be more than just an inexpensive way for an old guy to feel good about himself?
This leads to the more important question. With all the moving parts and interconnectedness involved in both the art and business of academics, can this technology ultimately transform education and in the process allow many who are now left out because of cost or access improve their lives and thereby lift us as a nation? Only time will tell, but if I can just find a MOOC on the "Future of Learning." I'll try to give you an answer.
Foster, a Charleston surgeon, is a former state senator from Kanawha County.