If you’ve been following news reports about higher education, you know that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), using online technologies to offer courses open to the world, are capturing the imagination of education prognosticators who see them either as benefits or as threats to traditional universities and the students they serve. UMass Boston is offering its first MOOC this spring, “Molecular Dynamics for Discoveries in Computational Science,” taught by Nishikant Sonwalker, adjunct professor Physics and founder of Synaptic Global Learning , to be followed in June by a second MOOC on Coasts and Communities, and the Center for Innovation and Excellence in E-Learning (CIEE) in the College of Advancing and Professional Studies held a symposium on “The Sustainability of MOOCs in Higher Education” in December to prepare the way.
The idea of providing educational content for free to a larger public isn’t new, and one of my favorite posts on the subject, “A People’s History of MOOCs’” by librarian Barbara Fisher, looks back to the building of the Boston Public Library in 1865 with its inscription “Free to All” as a milestone in such efforts (Inside Higher Education, November 29, 2012).
Although MOOCs are suddenly in the news, in some sense they’ve been developing for a long time, as new technologies led to video tutorial projects and multimedia instruction while the development of the internet stimulated further efforts to make educational resources widely available online, and there were several concurrent efforts, including the Open Course Ware initiative that a number of our faculty have been involved in to make course content freely available. But the development of the MOOC as a new model, providing not only open content but open course software, took off in 2011 when Stanford offered several free open courses quickly enrolled large numbers of students (165,000 in the first computer science course), and two Stanford professors, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, launched Coursera to create a delivery platform for such courses with the intentions both of providing rich educational content to a world-wide audience and of changing g the in-class lecture model within the university (flipping the classroom). Edex at MIT and Harvard was developed around the same time, offering a non-profit alternative to Coursera and one that our own MOOC activities are connected to. And in a short time MOOCs have reached across countries and also across disciplines, with Coursera now offering 328 courses from 62 universities, to 2.9 million registered users, in 220 countries. And, to my surprise, 28% of those courses are in the arts and humanities (Waldrop, 2013).
It’s clear that MOOCs have the potential to reach large numbers of students around the world and that, with significant resources being put into content development, they can provide a well-designed pathway to learning for those students who stick with them.
It seems that the upside of MOOCs, the ideal, is that
- They can make high quality educational content available to all, everywhere
- They’re gaining lots of interest from learners who can access that content anywhere.
- They are fueling the development of best learning materials, including interactive ones.
- They can address the needs of individual learners as new technology, such as that being developed by Nishikant Sonwalker’s company, allows online course environments to analyze how individual students learn and to customize instruction to individualized learning strategies while gathering data that can provide valuable information to professors about what’s working for their students.
But so far there are downsides as well, including:
- The difficulty of figuring out a revenue stream that will support the development of courses while making them available to all
- The problem of attrition, with a huge investment going, in the end, to serve the much smaller number of students who currently finish courses
- The problem of how to assess students’ learning
- The fact that the professor of a MOOC can have limited or no personal interaction with so many students (although some say that peer learning and even peer assessment can make up for this). Some institutions are supplementing MOOC-delivered content with face-to-face classroom instruction in a flipped classroom approach (a model that Brian White in Biology will be working with).
So the question of the sustainability of MOOCs in Higher Education is a real one. And there are further concerns that while the big players like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT may be able to make MOOCs work for them, other higher education institutions won’t be able to retain students if these free offerings end up providing an alternative route to certification or a degree.
What might be the gains? In the world of higher education in general, Ng argues that the MOOC enterprise is fueling the development of better learning materials to make courses accessible to a diverse range of students and that online courses allow students “to create their own pathways through the material, which forces educators to think about the content in new ways.” He also believes that “MOOCs offer professors fresh opportunities to observe how their peers teach, learn from one another’s successes and failures and swap tactics to keep students engaged.” To further support faculty development, Coursera is creating a “Teaching a MOOC” course that will showcase successful practices and allow professors to share what they’re learning about teaching in online environments.
There’s no doubt that the world of higher education is changing rapidly, that our past models of college teaching and learning are being challenged, and that even if we’re not personally likely to teach a MOOC, this enterprise might well affect our thinking about the courses we do teach. And we might explore MOOC offerings for ourselves, to see what they have to teach us about how others are teaching our discipline as well as what it’s like to learn in a MOOC. (Gene Gallagher of EEOS has done this for graduate statistics.)
While much has been written about MOOCs, I’ve found three sources of information to be most useful to my own thinking:
M. Waldrop, “Massive Open Online Courses, aka MOOCs, Transform Higher Education and Science,”(Scientific American, March 13 2013) offers a very useful overview of the development and current status of MOOCs.
A. Ng, “Learning from MOOCs,” (Inside Higher Ed, January 24, 2013) makes the argument for their educational value, for both students and professors.
The recording of the CIEE event on “The Sustainability of MOOCs” (December 11,2012), provides a comprehensive picture of their development and potential promise from two of the leaders in this work, Anant Agarwal (EdX) and Nishikant Sonwalker, who is teaching UMB’s first MOOC.