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Google Gives MOOC Development a Major Push
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Posted On October 1, 2013
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On Sept. 10, Google and edX announced a partnership to “jointly develop the edX open source learning platform, Open edX, and expand the availability of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platform and its learning tools to individuals and institutions around the world.” Google, which announced its own Course Builder MOOC-like open source code base for platform development last year, said this action met its goal of “making education more accessible through technology, and enabling educators to easily teach at scale on top of cloud platform services.” The partnership will open MOOC creation tools on a single site for any interested MOOC developer rather than relying on edX’s course offerings to a broader development community and its partner institutions.

“The announcement that Google will raise its game in MOOCs is good news,” explains Sir John Daniel, former president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning and leading expert on open, distance, and technology-enhanced learning. “Any development that makes the MOOCs space more open, transparent and diverse is welcome.”

The Rise of the MOOC

MOOCs have become a key technology in academe in the past few years as a way to expand the reach of college programs and bring advanced learning opportunities to a global community. “The theory is that the self-paced learning style of online video lectures is more tailored to individual needs than a one-size-fits-all classroom,” Gregory Ferenstein notes in a recent article. “Students consult with tutors and their peers whenever they desire, and they can listen to lectures as many times as they need to in order to master the material.”

“As more and more education and training providers go online they will need a wide choice of platforms in order to choose those that give them the desired combination of scale, openness, assessment capabilities, etc. Google’s entry is important in giving providers of online learning a wider choice of platforms and degrees of openness,” according to Daniel. However, he continues, “although they didn’t call them MOOCs, Apple’s iTunes U, and particularly its iTunes U courses, are MOOCs in all but name.” In February, Apple noted that more than “1,200 universities and colleges, and 1,200 K–12 schools and districts host over 2,500 public and thousands of private courses encompassing the arts, sciences, health and medicine, education, business and more. Leading universities including Duke, Yale, Cambridge, MIT and Oxford continue to extend their reach by enrolling more than 100,000 students in single iTunes U courses, with Stanford University and The Open University each surpassing 60 million content downloads.”

“If MOOCs are as good at imparting knowledge as brick and mortar institutions,” The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews reasons, “that would be a game-changer for higher ed costs. Education would be detached from expensive amenities that drive up costs, and single professors could handle classrooms with hundreds of thousands of students. The cost of providing degrees would plummet, making college vastly more accessible to those who want it.”

A September 2010 Department of Education study of more than 40 existing articles and evaluations that compare online and in-person learning found that both methods are effective—and that hybrid methods of learning (that incorporate both in-person and online, such as ‘flipped classrooms’) produced even more effective learning. In a study released by Ithaka S+R in May 2012, researchers “used a strictly quantitative methodology to compare the two learning approaches in a rigorous way,” online and in-person, from six different public institutions. Their results were “remarkable, they show comparable learning outcomes for this basic course, with a promise of cost savings and productivity gains over time.”

“MOOCs and Open Education,” a 2013 British white paper from the JISC Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards, concludes that even though MOOCs represented a “disruptive innovation,” they also offered “an opportunity here for open education where less traditional lecturing and more facilitative and guided approaches to education can find a place in this new landscape of online learning where increased fees for established models may act as a deterrent to students.” Earlier this year EDUCAUSE released two reports on MOOCs. One report, “Learning and the Massive Open Online Course,” provides a “synthesis of the key ideas, themes and concepts” in the field. The second, the “ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2013,” notes that “when it comes to modality, college students seem to recognize effectiveness when they see it. Their preference for blended learning environments tracks well with the findings of recent large meta-analyses of the efficacy of different ways of integrating technology into higher education.”

The Impact on Education

Some foresee a blended environment, flipped classrooms, or other options dominating in the future of higher education. University of Minnesota chemistry professor and MOOC pioneer Chris Cramer notes that MOOCs “are wonderful, wonderful content vehicles, but they lack the classroom interactivity that moves education to the next level. My guess is that faculty will do them as sort of ‘next-generation textbooks,’ but adoption may be slow because other faculty will be reluctant to cede their dominance to a talking head other than their own. On the other hand, as an economical offering to the developing world, they can’t be beat.”

For a lasting impact, Cramer sees great value in these efforts. “I think MOOCs are causing a lot of faculty to think about digitizing their materials (including lectures) and using their class periods for more interactive activities, even if the intent is not to take those digital materials to the stand alone level of a MOOC (which is expensive). I think that’s probably a good thing. Actually, any time faculty are inspired to innovate or try something new, that’s a good thing. The renewed attention that MOOCs have focused on teaching is a great benefit of the phenomenon.”

A Growing Market of MOOC Competitors

Existing platforms include Coursera, established in April 2012 by Stanford University computer science professors, which now has 88 partner institutions and offers more than 450 courses across the disciplines. In July 2012, Coursera announced it had raised $43 million in venture capital which has allowed the company to double its staff and expand its operations. In January 2013, the American Council on Education approved five of its MOOC courses for college credit.

Udacity, the name meaning “audacious for you, the student,” was founded in June 2011 and is a for-profit MOOC platform that currently has about 25 courses. The company (and MOOCs themselves) suffered a setback when courses from San Jose State University (SJSU) were suspended when more than half of the students in the classes failed their final exams. More recent offerings have produced what SJSU considers more reasonable results. The day before the Google/edX announcement, Udacity’s founder Sebastian Thrun announced an Open Education Alliance that will focus on professional and job-related training with partners Google, AT&T, Intuit, and others. Thrun notes that even for himself, a computer science professor, “my education expires after 5 or 10 years,” and focusing on continuous learning is critical.

Many smaller efforts and companies are also serving the higher education market, K–12, and workforce sectors. And MOOCs are going global in a big way as well. Today, the second largest market for MOOCs is India, with reports indicating that in the future, “India may surpass the US. After all, India’s population is second only to China’s and India is third in terms of university enrollment worldwide.” Just this past week Vietnam launched its first MOOC, “offering free online education that juxtaposes short teaching videos with longer courses from international MOOCs giants edX and Coursera.”

Not to be left behind, on Sept. 19, the British entered the MOOCs arena with the launch of FutureLearn, based at the Open University, with a series of ‘mini-MOOCs’ lasting from 6 to 10 weeks each beginning in October. The alliance includes 23 university partners along with the British Library, British Museum, and British Council. This experiment will allow students to use computers or mobile devices for their coursework. The BBC notes that “FutureLearn will see the UK taking a much bigger step into the rapidly expanding online university market.”


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Nancy K. Herther is American studies, anthropology, Asian American studies, and sociology librarian at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Twin Cities campus.

Email Nancy K. Herther
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Comments Add A Comment
Posted By Daniel Robert10/2/2013 6:00:10 AM

Well it's nice to know about the Google's involvement in the development of MOOC. This step is highly encouraged. Distance learning is really helping many people to complete their studies.
Posted By Cameron Gerbers10/1/2013 8:23:26 PM

It appears as though MOOCs are the next big thing in education. Like it or not, it seems as though education is beginning to move away from the traditional classroom approach towards a more technology driven experience. I think that MOOCs and other online educational resources, such as CourseWorld.org, are helpful in that they offer education to a broader audience than before. I am interested to see where the trend leads in the future...

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