The Truth about MOOCs or:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Online Education

The first time that I heard the word “mo͝ok” was in the classic Martin Scorsese film, Mean Streets (Trigger warning: Profanity). It has now been 4 years since Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig offered “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to over 160,000 students and established the “Massive Open Online Course” as a permanent (if non-physical) part of the higher education zeitgeist. Within that same year, both Coursera and Edx launched to considerable attention and press predictions that this new form of learning was a ticking time bomb planted beneath the foundation of traditional higher education.

The MOOC and Me

Back in those wild west days of 2013, I was an MFA student at a well-respected art school where I had few thoughts (if any) for online education. After all, my field of study was that sacred antediluvian stronghold of tradition and failed Kickstarter campaigns known as the American Theatre. Two years later I now work for Kadenze, Inc., which the press has dubbed “The Art Mooc.” (We don’t like the term, but as Kurt Vonnegut said, “So it goes.”)

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I love my job. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I work with a team of brilliant people who have combined forces like some kind of art/tech Justice League in order to provide online arts education to the world. It is a beautiful mission that has been superbly executed. I should know — I helped to make it so (no one fire me for this post, please). However, with this in mind, I must admit that I am not always sure about MOOCs.

When I think of my time at art school — undulating on the floor with Meredith Monk or dancing to naked people playing traditional Indonesian instruments (true story) — I have trouble viewing an online course as ANY kind of substitution for the experience of higher education. In so many ways, college was special to me for every reason BUT the scholastic variety.

On the other hand, college was also expensive. In November of 2014, Forbes reported that student debt has now surpassed $30,000 for a four-year education. Facing numbers like this, it is easy to see a need for change.

Are MOOCs that change?

I don’t know. Fifteen minutes on the internet reveals a range of opinions and philosophies about these digital classrooms that are just as varied and passionate as the most debated hot-button political issue. That being said, I also don’t think they are going away anytime soon. In fact, for better or for worse, many online-ed providers (and traditional universities) now see these classrooms as an integral part OF the higher education system.

Owen Vallis (VP of Research and Development at Kadenze, Inc.), calls online learning an element of education. “[MOOCs] are not a replacement for anything, “ He says. “Instead, I think they will evolve to be a very important and critical extension of higher education as a whole. The hope is that they will help alleviate some of the cost associated with higher education, while at the same time providing access to increase the quality of education overall.”

To a technophobic-hippie-tree-hugger like myself, this statement sounds great. If I am honest, sentiments like these are the reason I took my job to begin with. Such sentiments are still not entirely descriptive. It’s nice to think of MOOCs as a cog in the grand system of modern education, but if that is true, then what role will they play?

The Problem of Confidence

Our President and CEO, Ajay Kapur, recently remarked: “Our goal, here at Kadenze, is to see our students apply to our partner institutions. We want to see them applying to these institutions and we want to see them get accepted.”

When I applied to college as a wide-eyed 18-year-old, I had no idea about where to go. Being the first person in my family to graduate from high school, higher education was a truly undiscovered country to me. Like many in my meager economic bracket, I felt that most of the colleges I had heard of (colleges of reputable note) were simply not for me. I felt that I was too undereducated, too unsophisticated, and too poor to find success in their vaulted halls. Such sentiments have become more and more common over the years (see this NPR article for proof), keeping increasing numbers of qualified young people from accessing an education they would benefit from.

To me, this is where MOOCs show their true value.

At Kadenze, we offer courses from Princeton and Stanford (as well as 17 other partner institutions) to students all over the world — regardless of education or financial background. If you have seven dollars a month, access to a computer and a willingness to learn, you can take our courses and you can succeed. Whether or not that student goes on to attend the partner institution, such successes are the building blocks of a confident mindset; The very lifeblood of future success.

MOOCs are not perfect. That is clear to anyone. Nor are they going to be dismantling the current higher education system any time soon. However, they have made (and will continue to make) that higher education system more approachable than ever before.

The truth about MOOCs is that they may not be the flashy revolution banging down the doors of higher education, but they will hold those doors open and that’s a whole lot more than nothing.

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