Essay 4


Higher Education Evolving:

MOOCs, Alternative Routes, Interdisciplinary Degrees

Josh Birdwell

Oklahoma State University


Higher education is either going to adapt or be left behind by the evolving world outside its’ walls. Three areas are key focuses on achieve a modern education. First, universities must recognize the impact online learning and MOOCs are having on students. They then must be able to utilize a platform to capture this learning. With more application based alternatives, universities need to incorporate hands on learning and more apprenticeship style course work. Lastly, the business world is constantly transforming. This calls for a young business man/woman to have a wider array of expertise and knowledge. Interdisciplinary degrees can help account for this rapid change and adaption. Degrees should be looser and more tied into passions and interests. With all three of these combined strategies, higher education will position itself to lead next generations to be successful in what ever line of work they so chose. Tuition is rising so high this is the least we should expect from universities. Students need to be the focus as higher education is not an industry but a business for students not for a profit. Revenue streams should not on the plate but how are our students once they enter the business world. They should want them to be prepared and ready to pivot at any point.



Higher Education Evolving: MOOCs, Alternative Routes, Interdisciplinary Degrees

With an ever changing technology landscape, higher education for the most part manages to stay stagnate. Outside of the perpetually boring PowerPoint dominated lectures, learning takes on a butterfly form through platforms such as Skill Share or Code School. These websites provide an engaging learning experience by learning by doing. Motivation for note taking and being shoved information down the throat has decreased because of the self paced environment created outside the classroom. No longer is the price like hiked up gas prices during spring break but, more near a deal on Amazon with free shipping. A time will come when universities will be undercut by the price of online learning becoming know as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS).

Alternative routes are becoming more and more normal to see. There is quite a bit of controversy around these “drop out” or “stop out” programs that are popping up around the United States. Many wonder if these are only for the top percentile. Students are able to learn a whole mixture of things on the world wide web.

Knowledge online takes the form of an all you can eat buffet line with little to no cost to get in the door. However, those same students go to one restaurant where they are spoon fed a specific type of food. Every once and a while, they are allowed to take a bite of a side dish but no matter what they are required to finish the main dish. Some students stay there a couple years longer just because they wanted to taste other food or decided to eat what the person next to them was eating. We need to allow for better structured interdisciplinary degrees and encourage students to expand. High ed is evolving in the face of both technology and diverse professional fields.

The spark that light the fire was one online course on Artificial Intelligence by a Stanford Professor. Before this course, he would teach a couple hundred students and that would be the extent of his impact. Signed up for this online course was over 160,000 students in 190 countries – from India and South Korea to New Zealand and the Republic of Azerbaijan. Of course, every one did not finish the course but those who did gained so much from it. A crazy fact was that there were perfect scores in the course and not a single one came from a student at Stanford. Sebastian Thurn, the professor, said that he had made a bigger wave with this one course then his entire teaching career combined. (Leckart) Little did everyone know that Mooc ventures would begin sprouting up.

Now Coursera, Udacity, and edX are among some of the leaders in the mooc sector. It began with people taking course work to beef up their skill set or resume. After a while, people wanted college credit for the work they were doing. Udacity offers courses for credit now and others are beginning to change to a more structured course to offer credit. This shakes the higher education landscape by completely undercutting other institutions. A computer science course by M.I.T. or an average state college is a decision students will soon have to make. The MIT course will be cheaper and better. However, we are not yet to the point where we can add this course into the core of the degree plan at the local college.

A craze for many is that these courses is bringing education to those who prior had little or no access to this quality of learning. This I believe could potentially be a game changer for those who can not afford college or do not have access to courses like these. Personally, online learning has forever shaped my life. I am tuning out the critics who argue that it will not work or that MOOCs are evil. Coding courses have help mold my programming skills. In interviews, I find myself talking about what I learned on Code School and Udacity not about the college class I have paid all this money to attend. My projects and GitHub account are full of shining examples of what I have learned for a sheer fraction of the price I pay Oklahoma State University. I have been able to signal my skill set so well I have been offered full time positions from start ups. A tug of war exists inside of me. One side wants to pay attention to my college course work. While, the other side desires to learn what skills I need for my upcoming internship. My desire is that some how these two worlds will collide and I can benefit in both areas at the same time.

A focus that can occur right now is how to better develop the existing online courses offered by colleges right now. Better communities need to be created for online course work. Collaborative space on campus needs renovation before we get another practice field for football. I could care less if the flowers are changed every week when we do not have innovative spaces to work on online courses together. Simpler solution would be to flip classrooms. However, we need to make sure that the professors are trained properly before they are allowed to try this out. Flipping a classroom can be extremely powerful especially in a math or physics course. Students would be able to complete their homework in class and work together with other students.

Hertz from Edutoipa touches on even if flipping the classroom does not work every as educators we need to be reflecting on our approaches to teaching. She has a great point in that we need to have teachers “reflect on their practice and rethink how they reach their kids. It is inspiring teachers to change the way they’ve always done things..” (Hertz). I stand with her on the point that we need to be always challenging and making sure the methods work best for the students. In high school, I was able to explain and teach others and this helped me to better learn it myself. Some of these courses, I feel so alone even though there are 300 students taking the course.

The next step is to get rid of D2L. Changing the background and adding notifications is not going to make it a desirable product. One of the problems is the lack luster platform we are engaging the content on. This summer, I will be working for a company called NextThought. They have created a revolutionary platform for the University of Oklahoma, Janux. Stansbury states Janux will be a “scalable model for higher education institutions across the country, effectively customizing a solution so as to make the courses as face-to-face as possible.” I agree with the face that Janux is pushing the bounds of standard online course platforms.

With platforms such as Janux, online learning within the colleges will be transformed. E-Books allow students to highlight and create notes on their textbooks. This system is centered around social learning which is one downfall for many of these types of classes. Stansbury acknowledges social interaction as one of the seven distinct ways Janux is revolutionizing online learning. From her observations, she see a features similar to popular social media websitesa. My stance is that it is important to meet these students where they are as far as communication. Once these steps are taken, universities can better address their current online curriculum before they look past their own struggles to students taking courses on Udacity for credit.

Now moving on to online courses outside the institution that the student is enrolled in. A huge question is how will courses from Coursera transfer to Oklahoma State University. Something as simple as a Calculus course could be completely different than the one offered here. One option could be to have a 3rd party that a student could pay to evaluate courses and create a plan for them to take courses from other providers online that will easily line up with their degree. A fee could be paid to the university if a student wanted to take a course online from another university. These courses that transfer need to be more than a special elective or side course. They need to be able to transfer as the meat and core of a degree. This will receive a lot of resistance fast because it will blur the identity of the degree received from that university.

Beauty to me comes from a degree that is comprised of classes from OSU, MIT, Stanford, University of Michigan, and Carnegie Mellon. A day will come when a degree will be almost Frankensteinish and have courses stitched from numerous universities. This is far off however, I am hoping that we move in that direction where we are learning from the best professors. No longer will a students future be defined by that one class who is only taught by a horrible research professor but that student can opt to take the course from Michigan instead. This will hold professors accountable because they will be competing against other professors to keep their students taking their classes. Most of this could me dreaming but I believe some action will have to be taken by the Presidents of Universities sooner or later.

MOOCs are still laking in four areas before they will be considered for any of the above notions. These areas are the 4 C’s: Community, Completion, College Credit, and Credibility. As much as people want to believe, online learning can be lonely even with some of the discussion boards. In the future, there will be public places where groups form to take a course together. Already, people are grouping up in various cities however, most of the time this is in San Francisco or Chicago not Oklahoma City. Social learning will play a big part in the success of MOOCs.

Students right now hardly ever finish the courses they have started. Sadly, I contribute to some of that percentage because college happens. Creators of these websites will need to improve how they engage the students and how completion is approached. There a couple of methods that can be used such as gamification or better rewards. One of those awards can be college credit towards completion of a course. Slowly and surely, college credit is becoming a reality. It is only a matter of time before more colleges accept certain “basic general education courses”. Udacity offers courses such as College Algebra that are accepted.

For this to continue, there needs to be an entity that holds the credibility of these MOOCs as its highest priority. Advancements will only occur when the integrity of these courses in place. Standards will need to be in place because right now there are countless websites that are offering courses. A possibility could be verified and approved courses from a company that checks to make sure that the professor is in fact teaching it and that the standards met the cut. MOOCs have a long hard road ahead of them but if they survive higher ed will be forever changed as we know it.

With all of this self-directed learning, alternative routes to college have made a large surge to become a viable option to not attending college. Right now, these have been the talk around many news sites and blogs. There is controversy over the importance of going to college and not dropping out. Dropping out to many is preserved to the Mark Zukerbergs or Steve Jobs. One organization’s goal is for every student to at least ask the question if higher education is the road for them. Uncollege is the name of the organization making strides in bring this question to the for front of student’s minds everywhere. It can only help to pounder truly why attending college is the right decision or not. Many students go to college as an innate next step with out even thinking about the implications. Walking around campus, sometimes I feel as if I am surrounded by zombies that are not cognitively aware of their decision to go to college. Most will realize junior and senior year that hey I am going to be in the business wold soon and I have no clue what I want to do. Colleges are sucking the money out of these students and creating the largest student loan debt we have ever seen.

Alternative routes are preaching on the outrageous tuition cost that colleges demand for students with little or no guarantee of a job after graduating. Oklahoma State is a prime example with our computer science department. They are not accredited, have no advisor, or senior capstone course. This has to say something to its students about their concern for the undergraduates graduating.

Entrepreneurship has become a bit of a fad and is spreading like a disease. Students are dropping like flys out of top universities some even Ivy leaguers. The best place to learn business is to run a business. Hands on experience will out perform reading a textbook on it any day. One argument that those who “drop or stop out” is that school will be there when they are done. Let’s say they completely fail and fall flat on their face the school is not going any where. Sometimes these markets are open at the right time and huge success can happen. Snapchat came out of a simple project for class and lead to a business worth billions by Facebook’s standard.

This begs the question do you need to go to college to do want you want to accomplish. Students need to stare in the face the finished product they want from their college experience and ask if it can be obtained elsewhere for the same outcome. Asking these questions will allow students to better appreciate why they are in college and take more advantage of their time spent in school. Peter Thiel challenged students to ask if college was providing them what they need to execute their ideas and passions.

Thus, the Thiel Fellowship was born. 100,000 dollars is used to help fund these students ideas. However, many are quick to say that this solution is for the top percentile and will not work for others. I think the single most misdirected bit of philanthropy in this decade is Peter Thiel’s special program to bribe people to drop out of college,” said former Harvard President Larry Summers (Ferenstien). Since it is early on it most of the cohorts it is hard to say what the full effect of this program will have on these young adults. Ferenstien would agree with me on this statement as he close out his TechCrunch article saying “the criticism, in the end, may be premature.” Another route is Enstitute which believes in 21st century apprenticeships. They want to place students in high rising startups under the wing of a stellar co-founder or CEO. I applied and got all the way until the 6th round. However, at the last possible moment they shut down the entire application round because of restructuring. Now they have “relaunched” and are shortening the time span. I have some friends that were fellows in the first class and have mixed feelings about Enstitute.

For Computer Science majors, there is a craze around developer camps. Recently, they have come under investigation for standards and curriculum. Two of the more popular ones are Dev Bootcamp and Hack Reactor. I applied and was accepted into Hack Reactor as well. The process was extensive and rigorous. I was unable to fork up the nearly 17,000 tuition asking price. Some nights I find myself asking if money was not an issue would I take that leap of faith. I struggle with if I am ready to jump full into an alternative path because I speak out about the downfalls of college. This is an inner struggle that continues today. Stokes speaks on the need to fill this gap between graduates and readiness for the business world. We come out of college and some students do not have the skills they need to be successful.

Uncollege offers a Gap Year to help students learn about themselves and see where they want to go. As more of these routes arise, questions are being pointed towards higher education and the standards are rising. Minerva Project is an entire school option that is going to challenge higher ed. They have some interesting insights on how they will change higher education.

The response of higher ed institutions to all of these alternative routes will be so pivotal. One action that they will need to avoid is to simply ignore that anything is taking place. Tuition will hopefully go down because of these other programs rising. Another important opinion is that of the business world and seeing how they accept those without a college degree. This will define the alternative route paths on weather or not students can receive jobs afterwards.

With all of the learning outside the classroom, degrees are becoming more and more restrictive. Having the Internet on hand, endlessly diverse knowledge is at the finger tips of students. Switching to a one track mind set is difficult when passions are overlapping in various majors. For me, I love education, entrepreneurship, and computer science. It is a penalty for me to take education courses and stray away from my degree sheet. University studies is not very attractive to employers and is not associated with prestige coming from Oklahoma State University.

However at Stanford, we could mix and create our own degrees and it would look amazing once we graduated. We could craft something beautiful that incorporated our passions and academic into one cohesive outcome. I want there to be an educational technology program that is not just a master program but also an undergraduate program. Writing curriculum is a skill that I would love to gain however, that has nothing to do with a BS in Computer Science. Students need to be better well rounded now because trends come and go. People are replaced quickly and we need to be able to adapt. No longer can we place all of our eggs in one basket and expect to be safe from unemployment.

Creating our own degrees gives us ownerships of our education. When we own our education, things begin to change because we are in charge and decide our fate. A single class no longer defines our future. We are able to pivot on how we are changing as we grow and change in college. State Universities will need to address how to allow for degree creation programs that ensure quality of the degree and the completeness of the student. This whole plan includes the above points of incorporating online courses from other universities.

A end picture is alternative routes working directly in line with colleges. Being able to complete course on Code School and Coursera for credit towards my degree. In the future, degrees could step away from being completely from one university. Degrees will be a beautiful master piece of dappling of each university that the student wanted to learn from. A day where my self-directed learning world mets my academic world is one where I would be extremely delighted to be in higher ed. A company helping guide this institutionless degree is called Degreed. They store all of the life long learning that takes place and display it in a central place.

Signaling is a huge conflict to all of this because at the end of the day we bounce our decisions off of what signal this will send. Once we have companies other than Google stepping out and saying that they look past just a GPA. Then we will have a time where students are willing to step out side the confines of the classroom and expand their learning to the depths of the Internet. We would all be able to showcase our learning on degreed to potential employers.

Weather not any of this is true, higher ed is evolving regardless if it takes action or sits idly. Soon there will be a overturning of the tables where a huge shift happens and the landscape is completely changed. OU is taking a step towards the future in investing in Janux. They understand the importance of online learning to the future of education. Being from Oklahoma, I am slow to see many students here even aware of the alternative routes that are at there disposal. Partially because many of the companies here would yet recognize this as a viable option to a college degree while in places like San Francisco this is completely fine. High Education will changed soon and we will be able to see that come to fruition.



Ferenstein, G. (2014, April 25). Why Google doesn’t care about college degrees, in 5 quotes. VentureBeat. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Ferenstein, G. (2013, October 10). Thiel Fellows Program Is “Most Misdirected Piece Of Philanthropy,” Says Larry Summers | TechCrunch.TechCrunch. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Hertz, M. B. (2012, July 10). The Flipped Classroom: Pro and Con.Edutopia. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Leckart, S. (0012, March 20). The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Stansbury, M. (2014, April 2). 7 features of a next-gen online learning platform. eCampus News. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from

Stokes, P. (2014, April 4). Work Ready or Not. . Retrieved April 30, 2014, from




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