Online course development may cost more than traditional classes, study finds

The debate over online education resurfaced in a recent study challenging the notion that online courses can reduce the costs of higher education for universities and students.

The paper, released on Oct. 16 by an association of faculty organizations called the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, states that massive open online courses, also known as MOOCs, and other online courses may actually cost more to develop and offer less than traditional face-to-face classes.

At UC Berkeley, MOOCs, which are noncredit-bearing and free for anyone with Internet access, are developed as part of a campus-specific online program that also offers UC Extension courses, summer courses and degree programs. MOOCs are delivered through edX, a nonprofit online learning initiative that the university partnered with in July 2012.

According to UC Berkeley MOOCLab Academic Director Armando Fox, the majority of MOOCs developed at UC Berkeley were based on existing campus classes. The cost of converting classroom courses into MOOCs ranges from $50,000 to $100,000 per course, depending on the class, he said.

“Berkeley’s view on MOOCs generally is that they are a way to enhance rather than replace what we’re doing,” Fox said. “We have no plans to make MOOCs a replacement for the teaching we do at Berkeley.”

James Vernon, a history professor and a UC Berkeley Faculty Association officer, echoed the study’s concerns about the startup costs and supposed benefits of online courses.

He also said that the solution to combating the increasing pressure on gateway classes is to reinvest in campuses rather than invest in online technology.

“Many people believe that online classes are a type of magic bullet for solving the problems of higher education,” Vernon said. “Our position is that there has to be proper faculty oversight of that process and that there has to be no redistribution of resources from the public to private sector.”

But despite their high development costs, MOOCs have enabled the construction of hybrid courses that utilize online technologies to enhance class materials as well as accommodate more students per course, Fox said, citing his Computer Science 169 course as an example.

According to Fox, 237 students are currently enrolled in CS 169, whereas last semester only 180 students were able to take the class. In spring 2012, 115 students were enrolled in the course.

The paper also points out that students must pay in order to obtain a certificate, a degree or “anything from the MOOC that carries real value in the ‘marketplace’ ” — stating that MOOCs may be “increasing social inequality” under the guise of “increasing educational access.”

Chair of the campus statistics department and statistics MOOC instructor Philip B. Stark disagrees.

“MOOCs are able to provide some value to people who have very little money but enough money to access technology,” he said. “That’s narrowing the gap between haves and have-nots globally.”

Contact Jessie Lau at [email protected].