The big trend in higher education improvement lately is the introduction of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to students across the country. MOOCs, classes designed for large-scale participation and open access via the Internet, have been hailed by pundits as a development that will “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems. And nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course.”

The revolution is here! We’ve never seen anything like this before!

We have seen something like this before: college by radio.

In a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Susan Matt and Luke Fernandez provide an interesting backstory on higher education reform. We’ve been down this road:

Nearly a century ago, educators were convinced that radio held that same potential. The number of radios in the United States increased from six or seven thousand to 10 million between 1921 and 1928. Many universities explored the possibility of broadcasting courses across the country and allowing anyone to enroll. Some onlookers believed those courses would transform higher education and eliminate lecture halls and seminar rooms. One observer noted, “The nation has become the new campus,” while another celebrated the “‘University of the Air,’ whose campus is the ether of the earth, whose audience waits for learning, learning, learning.”

By 1922, New York University had established a radio station, through which “virtually all the subjects of the university [would] be sent out.” Eventually a multitude of universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Kansas State, Ohio State, NYU, Purdue, Tufts, and the Universities of Akron, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Utah, offered radio courses. Subjects ranged from Browning’s poems to engineering, agriculture to fashion.

One pre-World War II commentator gushed that “college of the air” would make the “’backwoods,’ and all that the word connotes … dwindle if … not entirely disappear as an element in our civilization.”

Yes, nothing had more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education.

Problems emerged. Familiar problems. The completion rates in radio courses were low. Students found the lack of social interaction frustrating. There was also the troublesome matter of academic credit. Some students received mere “certificates of completion” when they successfully completed an air college course and colleges and employers often didn’t know what to do with such things. Other colleges eventually did offer credit toward a degree for radio courses—according to the Chronicle, “between 1923 and 1940, 13 institutions offered courses for credit, and nearly 10,000 students enrolled”—but it didn’t work out so well. Only 17 percent of people who signed up ever earned credit.

This doesn’t mean that MOOCs can’t work. In many ways they appear to be much better designed and provide greater interaction between students and professors. But this looks really familiar. Perhaps a good question to ask when evaluating the potential for online courses to change education is not “how can MOOCs be as good as traditional college?” but, rather, “how can MOOCs better than other delivery methods—radio college, TV college, correspondence college—we’ve tried in the past?”

America’s already had a few philosophical debates about education delivery. We get it: everyone doesn’t need to be sitting in the same classroom. The challenge is creating an alternative that works in practice. Of course it works in theory. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer