What you need to know about MOOCs

One of the hot topics in the future of teaching and learning is spelled MOOC — Massive Open Online Courses.
Top-ranked universities such as MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Berkley and Yale now all offer a wide array of free online courses in areas from quantum physics to literature history. Could online teaching really disrupt higher education over the next few years? As famous Swedish artist and philosopher Alexander Bard puts it:

“Close down today’s schools! Why the heck should I go to a mediocre college taking lessons from a mediocre professor, when the best lecturers can be found online for free?”

Modern schools can arguably be blamed for not keeping up with the pace in other methods of teaching. Modern times require a modern approach and lingering in ancient academic principles isn’t always the best way forward. Long gone are times when information could only be attained by reading a book or taking a campus course. With the Internet came endless information and wisdom; the challenge is just sorting it all out and finding what information is accurate and applicable in your field. A MOOC is a way of letting students from all countries connect, collaborate and discuss information from all corners of the world in a cooperative learning experience. The syllabus of a MOOC is in constant change, as is the course material. When new and updated material is discovered, the participants read and discuss it thoroughly, and if the material meets the standard it gets incorporated into the course, replacing older material or complementing similar work. This way everyone can help out in picking the cream of the crop and improve for future learning.

Educators George Siemens and Stephen Downes launched the first ever MOOC in 2008 from the University of Manitoba, Canada. This was at the time mostly though of as an experiment related to their course ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’. One of the keynotes in this course was that learning could be more successful by building relevant networks and learning how to connect. Seems about right, doesn’t it?

Since emerging, interest for online courses have gone up dramatically and colleges in most parts of the world now compete with their American peers for student enrollment. Today, the Coursera platform is the dominant player in the MOOC-game and boast with more than 1,600 classes from 145 different universities.

But what is it that spurs the hype for this new method of learning? Since gaining in popularity, MOOCs have become a really hot topic in academic contexts with strong opinions both for and against it. Let’s dive into the pros and cons!

The advocates of online teaching claim that the traditional way of teaching is in for a rough ride over the next few years. Online teaching means that management and material from only one or two teachers could serve thousands of engaged students, thus a way of effectively solving the problem of overcrowding in today’s schools. Working adults could benefit from learning online as well, since course elements could be squeezed into a busy schedule. Studies have shown a positive attitude from employers both towards hiring MOOC-educated candidates and the benefit of employees being able to gain new knowledge and take on new tasks through online learning. 
Money-wise, online courses are by default free, but many schools and platforms charge a fee for completion certificates or exams, but in comparison to a formal college education it’s still extremely cheap. For the knowledge-thirsty without the need for a degree, there is still time to freely engorge in the vast learning opportunities on offer.

In the other camp, the nay sayers argue that, for the world’s knowledge to keep expanding there must be someone paying for research and education, books won’t write themselves, and certainly not if there is no money involved. Not to mention the meaningful human interactions involved in learning more social lessons; how to orally discuss matters, perform live presentation and work in a physical team. Is it really wise to remove such a great opportunity of meeting friends and interesting people?

There is also another big disadvantage with mass enrollment concerning individual feedback. It is impossible to get feedback on a personal level if one teacher serves thousand of students. However, this problem is under heavy scrutiny by researchers who are using AI-applications to try and solve this dilemma. See an earlier blog post for more information.

In the end, there are pros and cons, solid arguments and strong opinions. MOOCs will continue to engage and evolve. What’s your stance in the matter? I’m all ears for your input!

Further reading:

Andrew Ng
How MOOCs Are Taking Local Knowledge Global
Available at: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/how-moocs-are-taking-local-knowledge-global/

Juliana Marques
A Short History of MOOCs and Distance Learning
Available at: http://moocnewsandreviews.com/a-short-history-of-moocs-and-distance-learning/

Harvard Gazette
Massive Study on MOOCs
Available at: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2015/04/massive-study-on-moocs/