Drop ins: MOOCs and the price of learning

As an undergraduate in the US in the early 1970s, it was not uncommon for there to be people in our classes “auditing” the course. (Auditing in the sense, “listening”, i.e. attending but not enrolled.) While auditing was supposed to be governed by regulations there were a range of practices from entirely informal dropping in, to what amounted to full participation in all but the exam. There were supposed to be fees payable for auditing but as far as I could tell actual practice was to go under the radar and simply ask the prof (lecturer) if she or he minded. Mostly they didn’t. This practice was so wide spread there was even a national network TV comedy drama about it: “Hank”; “He’ll get his degree/ His Phi Beta key/ And get ’em all for free!/ That’s Hank!”. Being an American comedy drama, Hank also ends up marrying the Dean’s daughter, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hank_(1965_TV_series) . The point is that a college degree was expensive, but access to the knowledge was free to those with the gumption to drop in. I audited Latin at the local state university before coming to Oxford to study historical and comparative linguistics. As far as I could tell the Classics Department was delighted to have someone interested come to classes.

MOOCs remind me of this practice of dropping in under the radar.

But times have changed a lot. Everyone teaching in higher education has a much less certain tenure, and that tenure depends to some extent on bums on seats in your class. If there are uncounted heads that doesn’t help your job security. But, on the other hand, the Internet makes learning so much more accessible.

MOOCs invert the ratios of enrolled participants to drop-ins. In FSLT12 this was the cause of some tension. Were the enrolled participants the “real” participants?

We will have to work this year to make sure that on the one hand, people who have paid for an accredited course feel that they have got their money’s worth, but equally on the other not to devalue the drop-in seekers after open knowledge.

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