Recently, the University of Wisconsin announced it will be offering four online courses next fall that will be available to the public free of charge. These courses will be taught by UW professors, but students enrolled in the courses will not earn college credit.
Upon hearing this news, I was a trifle shocked. In the past, I haven’t seen the university as an institution that would open up a class to everyone, free of charge. However, upon further reading, I have to say this is one of the best moves UW has made in my three years here. When I saw the wide variety of courses being offered, it surprised me. There is a course about video games, a business class and a class laboriously titled “Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the Knowledge Economy.” I think we’re all intrigued by that one.
The decision to offer these classes is important for the future of UW. It is part of the larger Massive Open Online Course movement that many competing universities, such as the University of Minnesota, have recently joined. If UW wants to keep up with the great publicity that comes with this movement, then now is the right time to join in.
The university is likely to reap a wide range of rewards in exchange for these free courses, not the least of which is that people who take these classes will probably be tempted to enroll here if they eventually decide to go to college full-time. The online courses will encourage people to stop seeing UW as an overpriced, anonymous university, and start seeing it as a school that truly cares about spreading a wide variety of knowledge for the good of society, not just the good of its students. Offering open online classes, which don’t count for college credit, will also reinforce the idea UW does not simply equate learning with getting a degree.
There has been a good amount of debate about the MOOC movement and UW’s decision to join it. A main concern is that this movement is part of the snowballing pattern of online courses replacing traditional college classes. Others bring up the fact that if people taking these classes do not recieve credit, but are not charged tuition, then doesn’t that mean the only thing we are paying for at UW is, in fact, the credit?
I would try to assuage these fears by saying, for the most part, people still pay for college classes, and college classes are still mostly taught in the classroom. In addition, it is important to think about knowledge as something that grows and increases in value as more people acquire it.
The idea of education being as self-sustaining and unrestricted is an intriguing one. If teachers want to teach and students want to learn, why should there be restrictions on who can join a class? I think most people would agree with this statement, but it is when a degree is thrown into the mix that things get more complicated. As for these four online classes UW is offering, I think we should try and view it from the perspective of giving and receiving knowledge instead of making predictions about the uncertain consequences of it.
Julia Wagner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a junior majoring in English literature.