According to Wikipedia, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC; /muːk/) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. MOOCs are a recent development in distance education which began to emerge in 2012.
Distance learning, however, has been around since the 1890s in the form of correspondence courses. Over 4 million Americans – far more than attended traditional colleges – were enrolled in correspondence courses by the 1920s, covering hundreds of practical job-oriented topics. Their completion rate was under 3% – a reality that holds true for today’s MOOCs.
Widely seen as a major part of a larger disruptive innovation taking place in higher education, MOOCS allow for and at times demand an “unbundling” of services the traditional academy once owned, controlled, and delivered. These services include research, curriculum design, content generation (such as textbooks), teaching, assessment and certification (such as granting degrees). MOOCs threaten existing business models by potentially selling teaching, assessment, and/or placement separately from the current package of services.
There are arguments on both sides of this issue and the conversation has only just begun. I think it is safe to say that MOOCs are here to stay in one form or another because their benefits outweigh their risks and the environment for education has been irrevocably altered. Some of the benefits I see to Connectivist pedagogy that shapes many of today’s MOOCs is the remixing of materials created within the course with each other and with other materials; the re-purposing of aggregated and remixed materials to suit the goals of each participant; and the Feeding forward, or sharing of re-purposed ideas and content with other participants and the rest of the world.
MOOCs can be accessed anywhere there is a web or wi-fi connection, in any language or multiple languages, they escape time zones and physical boundaries, peer-to-peer contact can trigger serendipitous learning, making it easier to cross disciplines and institutional barriers. Their contextualized content can be shared by all which enhances personal learning environments and improves lifelong learning. These are all good things in my book. A great thing is the potential to produce and deliver content in a short timeframe (e.g. for relief aid).
Drawbacks include the massive disruption they are causing the education landscape. Change can be healthy but massive and sudden change is unnerving. Enormous personal responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the learners in this setting and most of the course prep has to happen ahead of the class, which can be a heavy load for teachers. Digital literacy is necessary for both students and teachers and the socio-economic barriers for MOOCS are similar to those for other forms of education. A generation gap in skills for older teachers is also a very real barrier to adoption.
MOOCs are organic, which means they tend to take on their own trajectory. The sages on the stages do not like this model. Student participants create and curate content, also challenging the model of a professor at a lectern.
Grabbing the organic by the horns, a few creative and ambitious folks at Virginia Commonwealth University have designed a “digital engagement pilot titled “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds” as part of their summer program.
Loving a challenge and interested in bringing best practices in education to RBC, I signed up! The official name of the course is UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument. Officially, we will be reading and working with five essays, learning new concepts that will help us build better questions, and creating better learning networks on-line.
In order to engage in the course, all participants need a blog with an RSS feed which allows comments to be aggregated on one site for tracking and commentary. Like most on-line classes, participation takes the form of posting comments and commenting on others’ posts, threaded discussions, and synchronist virtual meet-ups. My blog for this class is tarpaperpress if you have any interest in following along.
What’s particularly fun about this class is well captured in their catchphrase, thought vectors in concept space. Freeform prompts have been tossed our way and people are responding with pictures, quotes, and screenshots that represent their wandering around the internet. “Class” started on Monday with the prompt “How Do I Feel When I Think?” The screenshots of web browsers or reddit pages are fascinating archives of the modern mental process of inquiry. These thought vectors are jumping off points for further rumination and research. The mapping of these trails of thought is fascinating. As of this morning, Thought Vectors included 555 total post(s) syndicated for all 121 blogs on its site.
Keeping up with this is going to be difficult. Deciding whose trail to follow and taking the time to thoughtfully comment is going to be time consuming and demand concentration. Focusing in an environment of sprawl can be trying. But sprawl is our new world, our on-line world anyway. We are overrun with information. It doesn’t matter what you know, it matters what you do with what you know. Focused inquiry is perhaps the most important skill an education can support. The world is changing; jobs are changing; our skill sets and the way we keep up with these changes have to change too.
A comment in this morning’s New York Times from an article about student debt struck this cord rather succinctly:
San Jose 12 hours ago
“Most of these arguments dance around the fixed and unchallenged notion of a four-year college *degree* with a more or less fixed curriculum and flexible but cut-and-dried timeframe… “Degreeism” ignores the rapidly changing nature of knowledge and its utility, which fits uncomfortably with the fixed degree and leaves the diploma’s semi-educated owners only indifferently prepared to meet the challenges of work and other aspects of modernity. A redesigned set of mini-curricula that can be adapted to individual needs in an agile, recombinant fashion, more *certification* and less cap-and-gown formalism, would be more appropriate for today’s global economy. The indigestible bulk of the four- or even two-year degree is a huge fixed cost with rapidly diminishing benefits that is clearly burdening US society and its fiscal future for nearly two decades. It is long overdue to challenge at least to question conventional belief/practices on this matter.”
For more information and to see the scale of this Massive Open Online Course disruption, visit this “MOOC List”.