The IT revolution that was supposed to transform higher education has failed to materialize, at least in the way we had imagined it. The revolution did occur, but not directly within higher education–instead, it changed the overall nature of work in our culture. And now, higher education seems to be behind the curve, struggling to catch up.
Enter the MOOC–a relatively new buzzword meaning Massive Open Online Course. And it holds hope for many as a way for higher education to "catch up." Indeed, MOOCs could be one way to get ahead of the curve again, or, they could become a yet another material threat to higher education. Here's how to turn this "threat" into something much more positive.
A shockingly sudden phenomenon, MOOCs are really only one symptom of openness, the general effect of digital technologies making information and knowledge ubiquitous, universal, and in many cases free. Enrolling millions of students worldwide [see "How Free Online Courses Are Changing the Traditional Liberal Arts Education," a PBS Newshour report from January 8, 2013] does make the MOOCs seem like a threat to the higher education establishment (except for those institutions offering them). But to learners everywhere, MOOCs seem to open the door to learning opportunities undreamed of just a few years ago. Wherever there is broadband connectivity, people anywhere in the world can sign up for courses offered by faculty from some of the most prestigious universities in the world. We are seeing pent-up demand at a massive scale.
Still, there are valid questions: Are students really learning from what could seem merely a very, very large lecture hall? If they are learning by participating in MOOCs, how can we know that? And how can that learning be better documented and visible? Students in MOOCs may take tests and may have some contact with other students and with a mentor, but to say that anyone knows these students as much as a professor does in a traditional setting is a real stretch.
Yes, MOOCs offer great lecturers, there are social dimensions to the MOOC experience, good graphics, shorter segments of learning for better grasp, and so on, but we are left with huge questions. Would MOOCs be massive if they were not free? What do we conclude from the very low completion rate? And, how can MOOC enrollees receive recognition of their learning from a formal degree-granting institution?
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