MOOCS: The Future of Education or Just a Fad?

It’s not surprising that the MOOC movement is often described as a revolution.

Massive open online courses are game changers for higher education. Over the last few years, both traditional and online universities have been opening up their classrooms for free to the world. Even some of the most recognizable universities in the United States are now hosting MOOCs.

“MOOCs provide students the opportunity to expand their knowledge and pursue their interests without dedicating fixed periods of time to fit a college or university schedule,” explains Dr. Marla Kelsey, full-time faculty member for NCU’s School of Education. “The MOOC format gives the ‘average learner’ access to elite faculty and curriculum from prestigious higher education institutions.”

Like Dr. Kelsey, MOOC educators are passionate about providing educational resources to those who might not otherwise be able to afford college. They recognize they are significantly changing the lives of some individuals. And, while most would agree that providing access to education to people all around the world is positive, the benefits do come with challenges.

What is a MOOC?

A MOOC is a massive open online course. The course is open in the sense that you can take the course without paying for it; however, you might have to pay the university if you want credit for it. The work done within the course is shared among everyone participating. You get to keep your work and everyone else gets to learn from it. Participants don’t complete specific assignments, but participants engage with one another and network. There’s no right or wrong way to complete the course. MOOCs promote independence among learners, but through course participation you can make connections with your peers for your professional network outside of the class.

Dr. Darren Adamson, director of curriculum development for NCU’s School of Marriage and Family Sciences says, “The online classroom can be as engaging as any traditional classroom if the teacher and the student are willing to deal with the challenge of rapid and broad-ranging technology changes.”

How to find MOOCs

An Internet search will turn up hundreds, if not thousands, of results for free online courses. Want to see if an Ivy League school offers a free online course? Just search the school name + free courses and you’ll be surprised to see how many courses are offered for free by some of the most respected universities across America.

In addition to conducting a search engine query on free online courses, there are also a number of companies that serve as curators for free online courses.

Currently, the top players in the MOOC space are Coursera, Udacity, and edX. These MOOC providers have roots in some of today’s top colleges and universities providing access to courses and professors without any formal admissions process outside of registering for the class. Popular MOOC topics include mathematics, computer science and business. However, courses can address everything from physics and electronics to medicine and the humanities — it all depends on which MOOC provider you use.

The Challenges of MOOCS

Even though there are numerous benefits to MOOCs, they do come with challenges. The biggest argument against MOOCS is the fact that most of them are free and do not count for academic credit. However, the practice of awarding certificates of completion, sometimes for a fee, is becoming more common.

According to Kelsey, it’s still too early to tell how a MOOC education can impact a job seeker or professional seeking career advancement.

“It will be interesting to see from an employer’s perspective, if they will accept certificates or ‘badges’ as something they feel demonstrates skill in place of the traditional degree,” she notes. “Mozilla Open Badge Backpack and Khan Academy allow participants to store their badges and related skill sets in ways for employers and others to make some type of evaluation. In some ways, these skills may be easier for employers to understand: a badge in word processing skills or databases may have more meaning to the non-academic world than a posted degree in business or information systems. Employers may be more likely to accept MOOCs as a form of professional development or continuing education for merit increases.”

In addition to earning credit, another challenge is policing cheating. There are measures put in place at other traditional and online universities to deter cheating like source citation tools, IP address detection and more, but with MOOCs, it’s a bit more relaxed due to the free model.

“MOOCs currently use some form of a quiz or test for those students who want to earn a certificate of completion, but they are not proctored or monitored in a way that can ensure definitively who is authoring that work,” says Kelsey.

Expanding your Education with MOOCs

Despite the ease of use, there are a few things you should keep in mind if you decide to enroll in a MOOC. First, if you are the type of student interested in MOOCs for potential credit, you will need to work very closely with your school to find out whether or not you can get transfer credit for your efforts. Second, if there is a way to get course credit or a certificate, you will probably have to pay for it.

The Future of MOOCs

MOOCs have certainly expanded the possibilities of online education, and everyone seems to have their own idea of what the MOOC space will look like in the future.

“Distance learning is filling a real need for learners that are remote, who may travel for their jobs or who just cannot make it to a brick and mortar classroom due to their lifestyles,” acknowledges Kelsey. “On the other hand, some experiences will always be better ‘face-to-face,’ such as with practical learning experiences for teachers, nurses, and some math and sciences classes that include wet labs and those courses that require a hands-on approach to ensure learning outcomes are met. It really will depend on the individual student’s needs and the desired learning outcomes.”

*Originally published in the summer 2013 issue of Higher Degrees, a Northcentral University student and alumni magazine

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