The ABCs of MOOCs

If you haven’t heard about MOOCs, you’ve probably been trapped in your office and the classroom for the past six months. Even if you have been hearing talk about MOOCs, you may be wondering what one is and why they are suddenly so much in the press.The Innovative Instructor offers this post on MOOC basics.

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. The two fundamental components are open access and the ability to support large scale enrollments. These courses are typically pitched to college level learning without offering credit. In some cases, certification is available (usually at a small cost); several universities are exploring credit options through fee-based MOOC offerings.

MOOCs are new and the landscape is rapidly changing. Although the companies offering these courses point to enrollments in the millions, the average course completion rate is under 10%. An article in The New York Times this week examines the current status of MOOCs and suggests what the future might hold. It is accompanied by a short video that summarizes the start-up period and features clips of faculty teaching MOOCs.

The concept behind MOOCs – offering greater and affordable access to higher education – isn’t new.  Previous models for open access to course materials include the OpenCourseWare initiative started at MIT.  The OCW movement has international participation of hundreds of institutions including the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The Khan Academy, created by MIT and Harvard graduate Salman Kahn in 2005, was another inspiration for MOOCs. The first MOOC was launched at Stanford in 2011 when Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor, offered an online open-access course on artificial intelligence. 160,000 students from 190 countries enrolled. In early 2012 he founded Udacity to offer MOOCs on a larger scale. Currently the three biggest players in the MOOC field are Udacity, Coursera, and edX.

Course design varies from MOOC to MOOC, and learner experience may differ considerably. In some instances participants watch professors who have video-recorded their face-to-face class lectures and posted them online, accompanied by tests to confirm student comprehension. Other courses may provide short explanatory modules interspersed with quizzes. Some MOOCs make use of discussion boards and other collaborative activities. The faculty member who teaches the course is not likely to grade assigned papers and projects. With the large enrollment in these courses, assignments that can’t be computer-scored tend to be evaluated by peer review.  In those cases, participants serve as both reviewers and submitters, an exercise that can be viewed as a skill acquisition for students.

The appeal of MOOCs is obvious. Want to learn the basics of computer programming? Didn’t have time to take a course on American poetry as an undergraduate? Looking to boost specific knowledge or skills for college, graduate school, or a job? MOOCs offer a low-stakes opportunity to do so. If the teaching method in one course doesn’t match your learning style, it’s easy to move on to another offering. In fact, the best way to learn more about MOOCs is to sign up for a course.

Coursera has 211 course offerings starting in January 2013, with courses running from 4 to 16 weeks. Topics range from Genes and the Human Condition (University of Maryland) to Introduction to Improvisation (Berklee College of Music), including 8 offerings from JHU’s School of Public Health.

edX is showing 23 course offerings as of this posting, with titles such as The Ancient Greek Hero (Harvard), The Challenges of Global Poverty (MIT), and Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation (Berkeley).

Udacity is now offering 19 courses in computer science and math from Introduction to Physics to an advanced Applied Cryptography.  All of the courses are open, which means you can sign up any time and complete the course at your own pace without problem set or exam deadlines.

How will MOOCs impact higher education and how will they affect student learning opportunities? These questions were examined in a recent Educause Review article, Online Educational Delivery Models: A Descriptive View.  Here you will find a comprehensive overview of online educational delivery models (including MOOCs) characterized by modality and by method of course design.

Looking for more on MOOCs? Following are links to articles that will provide general information, discussions of the advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs, and examinations of the economics and politics of this so-called “disruptive technology.”

University Affairs/Affaires universitaires, July 31, 2012, Following the herd, or joining the merry MOOCscapades of higher-ed bloggers, Melonie Fullick.  An examination of disruptive innovation, the politics of higher education reform, and the economics of MOOCs.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 13, 2012, Why Online Education Won’t Replace College – Yet, David Youngberg. MOOCs may have some fundamental problems, but we still need to pay attention.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 13, 2012, Don’t Confuse Technology with College Teaching, Pamela Hieronymi.  An opinion piece discussing what educators do and why MOOCs are not a panacea.

Inside Higher Ed, August 31, 2012, Elitism, Equality and MOOCs, Ryan Craig. Accessibility versus elitism: are MOOCs being used to address the real problem in higher education?

The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 2012, Teaching to the World from Central New Jersey, Mitchell Duneier. A thought provoking commentary from a Princeton sociology professor who taught a course in a MOOC platform in spring 2012.

Inside Higher Ed, September 7, 2012, MOOCing on Site, Steve Kolowich. New site-based testing will strengthen credentialing for MOOCs.

Time, October 18, 2012, College is Dead. Long Live College! Amanda Ripley. The author examines the question of whether MOOCs can offer greater accessibility to a college education. Who will benefit and what does this mean for elite (and other) institutions of higher learning?

Inside Higher Ed, January 9, 2013. Paying for Proof, Paul Fain. Lengthy article on monetizing MOOCs, with considerable attention to the new Coursera “pay for proof” verification initiative.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources


Image Source: MOOC Wordle created by Macie Hall

One thought on “The ABCs of MOOCs

  1. Pingback: 2013 GSI Symposium Breakout Session 5: Challenges and Rewards of Teaching in a MOOC | The Innovative Instructor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>