What are MOOCs? Why Are They So Important?

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If you have never heard the term MOOC, you are like a vast majority of people. If you know a little bit about MOOCs … you are like most people, who pay attention to higher education. And if you think you are an expert on MOOCs, especially what the future will hold, you may be the only person with this ability to prognosticate!

MOOC refers to Massive Open Online Courses. These are courses that are available to anyone who has an internet connection. Currently, you can take a MOOC for free. Currently, few of these courses provide credit.

The concept of MOOC really began over a decade ago when MIT began its OpenCourseware program. The idea then and now is to provide knowledge and information to the widest possible audience. Many institutions have joined this effort and the number of courses has grown exponentially. MIT, Harvard and the University of California Berkeley have formed a collaborative called edX, which offers free online courses.

In the past two years, MOOCs have become part of a more organized educational initiative. A company called Coursera was formed in 2011 by two Stanford University professors and now includes 33 well-known universities that offer online courses for free. Companies called Udacity and Udemy have joined the field.

The growth of MOOCs has been applauded by some for the very essence of increased and easy opportunity for learning. But the following logical questions have arisen:

     1) What is the quality control of these courses?

     2) How can students earn credits?

     3) How long can MOOCs be offered for free?

     4) What is the impact on more traditional college and university curricula?

The issue of quality control is receiving much attention and is also the subject of widespread debate. Some point to the current online programs that are regularly assessed and lauded for their quality. But MOOCs typically lack the structure of other online courses and rarely include the central role of the instructor. Those concerned see the current iteration of MOOCs as self-guided learning, valuable but hardly comparable to formal education.

The issue of MOOCs becoming credit bearing is beginning to take shape. For example, a company called StraighterLine is charging students a modest fee to take courses and has partnered with 30 institutions willing to accept these courses for credit. The American Council for Education (ACE) recently announced that it will begin to research the appropriateness of Coursera courses earning credit. Of course, in the end, the decision to accept credit rests with the home institution, and it is unclear how and when most institutions will embrace MOOCs.

Most colleges engaged in offering OpenCourseware and MOOCs see this as a way to demonstrate social responsibility and to create an identity. But if these courses are made more robust in terms of accountability and assessment, and if these courses begin to bear credit, there will certainly be a fee. What is interesting, however, is that the cost of development and delivery of MOOCs is a fraction of other courses and curriculum, so the fees should be modest.

Clearly, there is both curiosity and concern about MOOCs from much of the higher education community. If and when students can complete degrees, certificates and badges through MOOCs, there will likely be some impact on enrollment at traditional institutions. Less selective and smaller institutions may feel the impact first.

This educational phenomenon cannot be ignored. Colleges need to study this emerging trend and determine how to embrace this form of learning. And decisions will need to be made quickly. After all, there is a MOOC coming to every computer soon!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Thursday, 17 April 2014