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MOOCs and the Changing Face of Higher Education
Posted On August 30, 2012
Although universities are usually slow to change, several high-profile institutions in recent months have begun to experiment with offering courses to unprecedented numbers of simultaneous learners anywhere in the world for free. These initiatives, often referred to as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), have the following potential avenues: to expand access to learning opportunities, eliminate many geographic and economic barriers to education, create more diverse learning communities, transform lifelong learning, and augment face-to-face and traditional education in new ways. However, while MOOCs present new opportunities, they also raise a number of important questions for higher education administrators, faculty, and students—questions related to the learning experience, instructional quality, assessment and certification, sustainability, scalability, funding, and administration—all questions that have no simple answers in an environment that is already chaotic and complex.

While various types of online education and open educational resources have been available for years, it is only in the past few months that MOOCs have begun to move into the mainstream. Last fall, a group of Stanford University computer science professors offered a MOOC in artificial intelligence in which, according to The New York Times, more than 160,000 students participated. Soon after, MIT announced a new initiative, MITx, to offer a “portfolio of MIT courses through an interactive learning platform.” MIT has been involved in open education for more than 10 years; an early initiative led by MIT in 2001 has since blossomed into OpenCourseWare (OCW), a repository of course-related materials from more than 2,000 courses from a group of universities around the world. These materials are available for individuals to freely access and use. Furthermore, all materials in OCW include Creative Commons licenses that allow users to adopt, adapt, or re-mix content.

While content from OCW is being accessed and used, it exists mainly as a repository of course-related materials from universities. The materials do not comprise entire courses. The MITx initiative and the Stanford-led artificial intelligence course were the start of the recent flurry of activity in the MOOC space, where new, standalone MOOC-style courses are being developed or existing courses are being redesigned or adapted to support massive numbers of students. The MITx announcement was quickly followed by a similar announcement from Harvard to launch Harvardx; by May, the two universities joined together to form the non-for-profit organization edX. Over the summer, the University of California-Berkeley became the third member of the edX partnership. As of August, edX is offering seven classes—three from MIT, two from Harvard, two from Berkeley. All seven classes cover subjects from within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Meanwhile, two other major players—both for-profit companies—have emerged in the MOOC space: Coursera and Udacity. In April, Coursera began offering courses from four universities: Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Michigan, and University of Pennsylvania. In July, 12  more universities, including three from outside of the U.S., were added to the list. In August, they announced that they hit 1 million enrolled students from 196 countries. Coursera currently includes 120 courses, covering a wide range of topics such as “Community Change in Public Health,” “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World,” and “Information Security and Risk Management in Context.” Coursera’s courses occur during a scheduled interval, usually lasting from four to 12 weeks, which allows for activities in which students interact directly with each other.

Udacity has taken a different approach. While Coursera has set up agreements with universities, Udacity’s arrangements are directly with individuals who serve as instructors of courses. Right now, Udacity is offering 14 courses, with a high concentration of courses in STEM fields. And unlike Coursera, Udacity’s classes are geared towards individual learners; courses start at any time and are self-paced, so there are no deadlines. According to its website, Udacity has more than 110,000 “active students.” On Sept. 15, Udacity will be hosting Meetups in 339 cities around the world to give learners an opportunity to connect face to face.

While each of these organizations offers its own experience, all MOOCs, regardless of host site, share some core characteristics. Most MOOCs are typical in structure to other online and face-to-face courses except for their scale—in theory, several thousands of students could participate in a course at any one time. Courses often last for eight to 15 weeks, the typical duration of a quarter or semester. They include lectures in the form of videos of faculty members presenting content; readings; assignments, quizzes, activities, or problem sets; and some type of exams. However, most activities or assessments are automatically graded or feedback is produced by peers, not by members of a formal instructional team or faculty member. Subjects range from a mix of academic areas commonly found in universities to current events and fun topics usually limited to electives.

MOOCs are “open” in that they are open to anyone in the world with an internet connection and they do not charge a tuition fee. Most MOOCs use content that is free to access, such as original content on YouTube, instructor-produced videos, public domain readings, or open access (OA) articles, but unlike other facets of the “openness” movement, such as OA or Open Educational Resources (OERs), MOOCs do not necessarily make their course-related content openly accessible under a Creative Commons or similar license.

While potential students are definitely supportive of this increased access to free courses, as evidenced by the numbers of people signing up for accounts, it is unclear exactly how MOOCs will impact higher education—whether it will serve to augment lifelong learning, offer educational opportunities to those who might not otherwise be able to take advantage of face-to-face or traditional online university courses because of cost or geographic issues, or if it will replace a traditional university experience for some students.

Long-term, sustainable funding is a concern. None of the major players has yet to establish a viable business model, although Udacity and Coursera are experimenting with several options. Udacity offers students the possibility of being connected with potential employers at no cost to students. They are also partnering with Pearson VUE to offer proctored exams for students participating in classes counting towards official certification. These exams will be offered for a “nominal fee.”

The course-delivery mechanisms currently adopted by edX, Coursera, and Udacity have the potential to work for certain types of courses, mainly courses that benefit from heavy peer-to-peer discussion, lectures, easily accessible readings, and web-based activities. However, it is difficult to imagine this model working for other types of courses—for instance, courses involving access to specialized, expensive, or rare equipment or materials; courses focusing on rhetorical, analytical, or writing skills in which feedback from an expert would far outweigh the benefits of crowdsourcing or peer-to-peer feedback; or any course in which students need a high level of supervision to conduct experiments or work with human subjects due to safety concerns.

Furthermore, best practices in pedagogy have been shifting from the “sage on the stage” model to one which emphasizes active learning, student-to-student interactions, and student-to-instructor interactions, all of which can be challenging, particularly within the current structure of MOOCs that are run by students at their own, individualized pace.

While MOOCs have the potential to expand access to education around the world and create new types of learning opportunities, they are still highly experimental in nature and are still in beta in terms of development. However, with the recent spate of announcements from highly selective universities including the University of Edinburgh, Duke University, and the University of Virginia participating in MOOCs, it is an area to pay considerable attention to in the coming months as higher education seeks to redefine itself in the digital age. 

Abby Clobridge is the founder of and principal consultant at FireOak Strategies (formerly Clobridge Consulting), a boutique firm specializing in knowledge management, information management, and open knowledge (open access, open data, open education). Abby has worked with a wide range of organizations throughout the world, including various United Nations agencies; private sector companies; colleges and research universities; nonprofit, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder organizations; and the news media. She can be found on Twitter (@aclobridge).

Email Abby Clobridge

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