Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are the latest and most intriguing in a series of technological disruptions in higher education. Typically, as a consumer technology becomes popular, professors try to find ways to incorporate it into their curriculums. Such was the case with computers, tablets and social media. MOOCs are different in that the trend has been supported by educators since the beginning of its modern form, which can be traced to the start of the Khan Academy in 2006. Rather than retrofit technology for the purpose of learning, MOOCs have gained enormous popularity not because of the technology but because of what the courses represent: the democratization of higher education. The technology required is simple by today’s standards and an afterthought when it comes to students taking the courses.
Currently, there are two views on the role of MOOCs in higher education. One side believes that MOOCs revolutionize higher education as we know it; the other side imagines a new category for one of the most stable institutions in the world.
Higher education, for all of its flaws, has been amazingly consistent over the last thousand or so years. But one glaring problems that colleges face is the cost of attendance. Tuition at public universities has risen 60 percent in the last 20 years (NY Times), and the expense is discouraging some students from even applying. More than a few experts have pondered the reality of a higher education bubble on the verge of popping. MOOCs offer a simple solution because they are free. Anyone with an Internet connection can now take classes from some of the best universities in the world, so why would anyone pay for college? Moshe Y. Vardi, professor of computer science at Rice University, notes that the tradition of higher education stands at a critical juncture:
After years of college tuition escalating faster than inflation, the very value of college education is being seriously questioned; an Internet entrepreneur is even offering a skip-college fellowship. In this environment, the prospect of higher education at a dramatically reduced cost is simply irresistible.
It is clear, therefore, that the enormous buzz about MOOCs is not due to the technology's intrinsic educational value, but due to the seductive possibilities of lower costs. The oft-repeated phrase is "technology disruption."
The bigger picture is of education as a large sector of the U.S. economy (over $1T) that has so far not been impacted much by information technology. From the point of view of Silicon Valley, "higher education is a particularly fat target right now." MOOCs may be the battering ram of this attack.
Read Will MOOCs Destroy Academia? on Communications of the ACM.
The simple fact that higher education has withstood so many changes in the past is the strongest argument for the other side. MOOCs are different: There is little to no student interaction, and there is often no grading or certification at all. Students learn but aren’t necessarily given credit for their work. Randy Riddle of the Center for Instruction Technology at Duke University believes that MOOCs aren’t quite ready for the limelight but that they could serve several other valuable purposes. For starters, they could be used as a marketing tool: Universities could give high school students a sampling of what classes are like at the college level. Additionally, Riddle notes that MOOCs could help prepare high school students for college courses or even offer credits to the students if their high schools lack advanced placement courses. He also believes that MOOCs, like many for-profit online programs, are a good fit for professional development. Self-paced courses are ideal for students who can’t afford to stop working to attend school full time.
Riddle is part of the Duke team that is working with Coursera to develop several courses for the free online platform:
Duke’s experiment with Coursera will likely highlight even more ways this new online course model can be used.
The world of MOOCs is moving quickly – soon, all of us will be moving from experiments to applying what we’ve learned to problems in higher ed. In my own investigations of MOOCs over the past few months, I’m convinced that the areas we need to address aren’t with technology or even basic pedagogy, but in matching the MOOC model to the most pressing needs that universities need to address for students and creating the institutional momentum to create the institutional partnerships to solve those problems.
Read MOOCs: What role do they have in higher education? on Duke’s Center for Instructional Technology blog.
In short, it’s too early to tell where MOOCs will take higher education. A foundation of experiments was laid in 2012. In 2013, we will finally get to see the results.