More Than You Knew About MOOCs

As a research assistant at ISKME, I have opportunities to investigate cutting-edge innovations in education everyday.  This past year I was tasked with a project to investigate alternative pathways in education, such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), personalized online classrooms, and free, university-level courses. Developments in this space have accelerated over the past year and disrupted how we view education.  

Khan Academy and Codeacademy, for example, have forced educators to rethink how they present material in the classroom and lecture hall, with some opting to “flip” their classrooms by having students watch lessons at home and work on “homework” in class. Coursera and Udacity have also rattled the tuition model of a college education by offering college-level courses for free (albeit without credentialing). Users have reported listing the courses on their resumes, earning jobs from new skills, and supplementing their college material with free courses.

What surprised me in the months I worked on this project, however, is how little I actually knew about MOOCs despite their burgeoning popularity. Here’s what I learned:

  • MOOCs aren’t new. Although the term was only recently coined in 2008 by David Cormier, the idea for MOOCs emerged from early ideas around Connectivism, which itself can be traced to 1960s articles on wide scale education using the computer. 

  • Platform builders are still learning how to create the best experience for learners. Harvard’s edX platform, for example, has embedded tools for measuring student engagement with resources, such as determining what types of resources students use to answer questions, thus helping to provide ongoing development support to the site. Carnegie Mellon's Online Learning Initiative has used student feedback to continuously improve its personalized approach to learning.

  • MOOCs are disrupting more than the teaching and learning process. They’re also raising questions about certification (How can learners be fairly recognized for the skills they learned in a free course?) and fair access to information (Should and can learners have access to the same quality content when they aren’t paying for it?). And their offerings, which do not include making students pay, have raised questions about sustainable economic models for free content platforms (When should platforms begin charging fees, and for what?).

It’s clear that MOOCs will continue to challenge education in the coming year(s). This article ventures, “Is 2013 the year of the MOOC?” I have no doubt that it will be and make three predictions. 

  1. Platform builders will find a way to recognize the skills of learners outside of traditional accreditation. Business owners and employers, for example, could partner with models to identify top students, as they currently do with ALISON and as Coursera is exploring through Coursera Career Services.

  2. Universities will adopt more online courses to broaden and diversity their student body as well as to cut costs. NYU is already experimenting with this idea by using Codeacademy lessons as the foundation for a computer science course.

  3. Given the high-quality content offered on many platforms, many courses will gain traction for meriting university credit, whether through accreditation, transfers, or new policies and guidelines established by universities.

Given how quickly MOOCs and other online courses are growing, we will certainly experience a revolution in education this year like none other. 

January 29, 2013