Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are prompting discussion about higher education's future and business model.
Can a class contain 100,000 Internet-connected students? Can grading be crowdsourced? Will colleges and universities someday confer certifications on students who've never stepped foot on campus, never interacted with a live teacher and never paid a dime?
These are just some of the existential questions confronting academia thanks to massive open online courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs are distinguished as much by their network- and computer-mediated scale as their free-for-all philosophy.
The first MOOC is believed to have been the 2008 course "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge," created by George Siemens, then an associate director, research and development with the Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba, and Stephen Downes, an online learning and new media designer and commentator.
Their course content was available through RSS feeds, and students could participate via threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life or synchronous online meetings. The course was taken by 25 tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba; another 2,300 members of the general public registered for the course online, free of charge.
From these humble beginnings, MOOCs have grown. According to one recent count, there are 230 MOOCs today, with more than 3 million students. In a milestone last year, an online course in artificial intelligence from Stanford attracted 160,000 students -- 23,000 of whom completed it.
In fact, the fastest-growing purveyor of MOOCs isn't a college or a university. Coursera is a venture capital- backed online platform, now with more than 33 participating schools offering online courses to 1.3 million students.
"The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled," Clay Shirky, an associate professor at New York University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, wrote in a lengthy post in November.
"Once you imagine educating a thousand people in a single class, it becomes clear that open courses, even in their nascent state, will be able to raise quality and improve certification faster than traditional institutions can lower cost or increase enrolment," Shirky wrote.
Distance learning has been a topic of discussion and experimentation for at least two decades, which begs the question: Why the current excitement?
"Why now? That's a question I've been asking myself," Kemi Jona, a research professor in learning sciences and computer science at Northwestern University, said in a phone interview with InformationWeek.
Noting the "long trajectory" and expensive failures of the past, Jona said the answer has less to do with technical advances (broadband connections to the home, tablet computers) than with economics -- specifically, the high cost of tuition and the global fiscal crisis, which combined to cause many to question the value of a post-secondary degree.
Jona is among those who see multiple advantages in online classes, ranging from "not subjecting a 19-year-old to an 8 a.m. chemistry class" to research suggesting that online environments may be more conducive to risk-taking and student participation. "It's not socially acceptable to look stupid [in person]," Jona said.
Not surprisingly, other educators are suspicious about MOOCs.
"It's not an accident [these] are coming out of the most prestigious and well-endowed universities," Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies and director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University said in a phone interview. The initiatives are, he said, "in some ways, a kind of publicity stunt to help reinforce the image of these [schools] as leading institutions of higher education." Fordham has no MOOCs, nor plans for one, according to Strate.
Strate isn't alone in his suspicions. If the unbundling of education happens, Harvard and Yale will be fine, but maybe not the "4,000 institutions you haven't heard of," Shirky wrote in his essay.
Does this mean existing institutions should lay low?
Not at all, says the professor whose 2008 class is credited with being the first MOOC. "If MOOCs are eventually revealed to be a fad, the universities that experiment with them today will have acquired experience and insight into the role of technology in teaching and learning that their conservative peers won't have," George Siemens wrote in a December post on his Elearnspace.org blog. These days, Siemens is an assistant professor in the Center for Distance Education and a researcher and strategist with the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute (TEKRI) at Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada.
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