For the first time ever, Massive Open Online Courses (better known as MOOCs) were a topic at EDUCAUSE. In fact, there were 16 sessions directly dealing with MOOCs, as well as dozens of other sessions that included MOOCs as a discussion point. MOOCs were even mentioned during the EDUCAUSE keynote address. Among the 16 MOOC sessions were Tools to Support Adaptive MOOC Environments; Effective Peer Review Assessments in a Writing MOOC; and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Constituent Group.
The discussions often began with putting MOOCs into the context of the Gartner hype cycle (see figure at right). While there is a consensus that MOOCs are at the peak of inflated expectations, opinions range widely about their long term, enduring value.
For context, the origin of the MOOC can be traced back to 2002, when MIT began a project to put all the educational material for their classes online. A 2013 Enterasys survey found that 13% of colleges and universities are now offering MOOCs and another 43% plan to offer MOOCs within three years. The vast majority (84%) of schools feel that MOOCs complement traditional residential programs. Businesses, such as Enterasys, have begun offering MOOCs to complement and improve their educational programs.
The Positive View Of MOOCs
Appropriately utilized, MOOCs offer excellent benefits to both students and universities. They provide schools with a valuable means for testing and refining course material. They offer an avenue to give back to the community, helping students by opening career doors. Several EDUCAUSE panelists pointed out that MOOCS can be a good way to draw community attention to their schools.
In general, MOOCs complement campus-based and for-pay online courses. As such, they can be positioned to minimize overlap with traditional courses.
The Skeptical View of MOOCs
As with many explosively-growing trends, a MOOC backlash has developed and was in evidence at EDUCAUSE 2013. One view is that MOOCs will go the way of Second Life, the online virtual world launched in 2003 by Linden Lab. Although Second Life is actually still alive and well, it boomed in 2008 when it reached 88,000 simultaneous online users and an economy of $567M, but has since fallen dramatically from that peak.
A view stated in To MOOC, or Not to MOOC is that MOOCs as retrogressive, going back to the days of instructor-centric teaching; rather than embracing modern interactive teaching including a high level of personalization. In this view, MOOCs rely on passive learning and the transfer model of teaching. The courses may use new technology, but only to support these retrogressive teaching methods.
MOOCS can engender a level of paranoia, not just on the part of instructors, but also institutions. They can theoretically teach thousands of students simultaneously, thereby reducing the need for individual instructors. Yet they don’t provide the funding necessary to pay faculty. With the cost of traditional higher education continuing to rise above a level of affordability, do MOOCs provide an economical and perhaps superior alternative? This paranoia is heightened by entrepreneurs like PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel who says, “The best way to learn isn’t by sitting in a classroom, but by doing”. To drive his beliefs home, his group offers $100,000 incentives to forego college and work on innovative ideas.
There is also the question of how to validate the identity of MOOC students. Theoretically, anyone could be taking the classes and tests while posing as an enrolled student. This issue, though, has already been addressed by for-profit online schools. In order to receive credit, online schools often require the student to come onto a campus to pass a test on the class content.
One sentiment of this anti-MOOC group, as stated during the session To MOOC, or Not to MOOC, is that it is best to wait and let it “gestate longer.” Over time, the platforms will improve, the mistakes will be corrected, and ultimately, MOOCs will prove to be either a valuable approach to education or a passing fad. In the meantime, according to this line of reasoning, there is no sense distracting students from more profitable courses.
The Consensus: Why Wait and Miss Out?
When used in the right way, MOOCs are extremely valuable today. MOOCs are currently intended to supplement or complement other styles of teaching, not replace them. For example, many schools use MOOCs to provide remedial and advanced learning that cannot easily be provided with traditional classes. At a minimum, universities should be constantly testing and refining new styles of education, including MOOCs.
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