The cost of higher education has been steadily climbing — especially in recent years due to the economic downturn. Recently, universities such as the Georgia Institute of Technology and Stanford University have offered courses online. On Feb. 13, 2011, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled an expansion of its OpenCourseWare, which allows students to take online classes for credit — a system better known as a massive open online course. The University should follow this current trend in higher education and explore MOOCs as a worthwhile medium for the dissemination of its curriculum.

The University’s mission statement pledges to “serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values.” Though these courses don’t ultimately lead to a diploma , the democratization of education stands to benefit a group of students that are strapped for cash yet driven to succeed. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the cost of tuition at a four-year institution has tripled since the 1980s, and more than 700,000 students turned to distance learning to earn their degrees after the recession that began in the fall of 2008 — the number accounts for about 4 percent of all college undergraduates.

The University has its own MOOC available as of last month, a course titled “Model Thinking” taught by Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, economics and political science. The University should expand its aims of profitable research to make education for all a priority, and MOOCs are a natural start. Such an initiative would be a positive influence on the University’s reputation as a proponent of higher learning. Online, for-profit college courses, although a possible alternative solution to getting an education in a recession, are often criticized as negligent programs that deliver low-quality results. According to a recent Huffington Post article, 13 percent of all college students attended for-profit schools in 2009, and those in bachelor’s degree programs suffered higher rates of unemployment and loan debt than students attending a public or private university.

Though education for education’s sake is an admirable rallying cry, it’s not necessarily practical, which is why one school has taken its MOOC a step further. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently increased the scope of its own online course program, unveiling a new venture in December 2011 called MITx. This free program is open learning software available to all students, including those from other schools, and users can also use MITx to obtain a credential for “a modest fee.” Though MITx is not far-reaching enough to allow students to graduate, certainly this online option a step in the right direction.

In order to move forward, the University should seriously consider researching and implementing more MOOCs. This not-for-profit action would be admirable and would increase the University’s alumni base. Free online courses like Page’s, whether accredited or not, would be a boon to the University’s reputation and, more importantly, the minds of hopeful learners.

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