MOOCs – A New Paradigm, or a Passing Phase?

Recently the education community has been all a twitter (pun intended) over the advent of MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). The discussion has run the gamut from fear that higher education would never be the same again to the equally extreme reaction that this was the fashion of the day and would be something whose time would come and go.

How does a MOOC compare to a traditional course? As The New York Times wrote in The Year of the MOOC , “Traditional online courses charge tuition, carry credit and limit enrollment to a few dozen to ensure interaction with instructors. The MOOC, on the other hand, is usually free, usually credit-less and, massive. Because anyone with an Internet connection can enroll, faculty can’t possibly respond to students individually. So the course design — how material is presented and the interactivity — counts for a lot. As do fellow students. Classmates may lean on one another in study groups organized in their towns, in online forums or, the prickly part, for grading work.”

While the jury is still not close to being in on this hot topic, and the truth will more than likely be somewhere in between these two extremes- some things are clear:

1. Traditional higher education and its ever spiraling cost structure is ripe for models that allow for greater numbers of enrollees at lower prices as part of a model that is online based at much lower price points.

2. Technology has made the ability to provide a higher quality of education online viable. Faster internet speeds, mobile devices, and worldwide accessibility have made it possible to create attractive content. Social media has made it possible to have peers help the discussion/mentoring/grading process.

3. The use of technology and the communities that have built up as a result, have made it possible to teach courses to thousands of people at a time.
4. There will always be a place for higher education that has excellent teachers, teaching smaller groups, in a traditional classroom setting- and the social interaction that goes along with that.

5. There are hundreds of millions of people that can benefit from higher education that is short of a traditional/high priced setting, but light years ahead of what they are getting today-nothing. For that reason alone, a MOOC, or some derivative, is an idea whose time has come.

Interesting early evidence to prove that if you build it they will come.

The 1st course that edX, initially an MIT venture, provided in March of 2012, Circuits and Electronics, enrolled over 120,000 students strictly through word of mouth with 10,000 of making it through the midterm exam. Those who completed the course received a certificate of mastery and a grade, but no official credit. Harvard University was so impressed that they became part of the venture shortly thereafter.

At Stanford University, Sebastian Thrun offered his Artificial Intelligence class as a MOOC, and had over 160,000 sign up leading him to form a new company – Udacity. M.I.T. and Harvard officials said they would use the new online platform not just to build a global community of online learners, but also to research teaching methods and technologies.

These were early signs that there was quite an opportunity for an alternative education model and a proof point that the thirst for knowledge, even when there is no sanctioned certification that comes out of it is worldwide and intense.

Discussions are taking place at the highest levels of higher education institutions about how to react to this new world. At the University of Virginia, the President lost her job when a nervous Board of Overseers used lack of speed in addressing this issue as a reason for letting her go- before bowing to intense public pressure and rescinding the firing. Every week that goes by sees another institution partnering with one of the big three of the MOOC world- Coursera, edX, and Udacity to provide some of their courses free of charge.

As a business who has a vested interest in this movie of “Education in the 21st Century” we will continue to write about this fast evolving topic as both a fascinated observer and someone who is trying to anticipate the evolution of this brave new world.

Steve Lesser, VP Sales & Marketing | Software Secure

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