Philosophy & Science of Learning

MOOCs – Promise and Opportunity

In case you don’t know by now, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and they are causing an upheaval in higher education worldwide. We should be careful when describing something as a ‘game changer’ but perhaps this is one instance where it is appropriate and warranted. In essence MOOCs are online courses that are generally free of charge and delivered on a range of topics from prestigious universities and colleges.

MOOCs are made available through various platforms or providers – the big providers are Coursera, EdX, Udacity and ClevrU. A clance through any of these sites will give you a sense of the range and quality of courses on offer.

The numbers taking some of these courses are staggering – class sizes in the tens of thousands are not unusual. However, completion rates are modest enough with an average of about 20% – a good interactive source on completion rates is found here at Katy Jordan’s site.

The big question is why a prestigious institution like Harvard, Stanford University and MIT would want to offer courses free-of-charge and risk destroying a valuable source of future revenue?

The answer may lie in a new emphasis on the provision of quality support, assessment and certification rather than content delivery in itself. This is a welcome shift – away from a view of learning in terms of transfer of knowledge and nurturing skills’ development such as communication, collaboration and problem-solving.

However, it would be a mistake to belive that participation on a MOOC is all about passive watching of video lectures and very little by way of engagement. I am taking a MOOC on Aboriginal Worldviews and Education by  Jean-Paul Restoule of the University of Toronto and it is really excellent. The learning tasks are varied and interesting and there are ample fora for discussion and integration. The course acts as a portal to an interesting and alternative perspective on how we see education and culture.

MOOCs are certainly disrupting the business models in higher education and perhaps this is for the better. The idea of opening-up learning opportunities to the widest possible audience seems to me to be a very positive development. Perhaps unexpectedly, the ‘free’ material will build an entire new market for students who would otherwise not have considered taking college courses.

In the end a good shake-up of the sector is long overdue and with the advent of MOOCs we might finally have an opportunity to replace the industrial models of learning and education with something more appropriate for 21st Century living.