It is hard to review any current news articles or listserv postings on the future of higher education without finding a few prominent references to the potential impact of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Every time I see this acronym, I find myself filled with some combination of excitement and apprehension.
The roll-out of MOOCs hit the main stage in 2011 when a course on artificial intelligence was offered on-line for the first time by Sabastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. This modest beginning (if one can call a course enrolling over 130,000 people modest) has led in a very short time to high-profile consortial efforts under the labels of Coursera, edX, MITx, and Udacity). An important objective of all of these systems is to provide courses at no cost to the masses by knowledgeable scholars and practitioners.
So what is the source of my apprehension and excitement? At a visceral level, I find myself attracted to the possibility of providing students with free access to courses taught by those who not only are experts on a topic but also want to be part of a bold new initiative to enhance teaching and learning. At the same time, I am apprehensive about how best to think about these initiatives in terms of the fundamental goals of the undergraduate experience.
On a substantive level, who would not find it attractive to sign up for classes taught by those who are experts in a field and delivered in the comfort of your home or office. The opportunity to increase knowledge about and understanding of important topics is a goal for anyone who places value on learning at any stage of life. I have often remarked that I would like to retake some of the classes comprising my undergraduate education, mostly because I have a desire to have a deeper understanding of such matters as the religions of the world, the history of the Middle East, the human genome, and the development of musical and artistic traditions.
So where do my apprehensions reside? I worry about how MOOCs will help students develop critical thinking skills, refined analytical abilities, effective communication skills, and sensitivities with respect to social justice, diversity, and global citizenship. Then, there are the practical issues of whether students will get credit for these courses, how fees will be collected to sustain the system, and whether course completion rates will ever reach acceptable levels.
Now I know that some of the MOOC efforts are attempting to address these issues by using embedded quizzes, on-site tutors, and sophisticated analyses of different learning modes. I certainly don’t want to create unnecessary roadblocks in the development of this new teaching and learning strategy, particularly one that creates access for large numbers of students at no cost. However, I think it would be wise to be careful about the hyperbole that accompanies some of reports on MOOCs.
When the personal computer was introduced in the mid 1980’s, the predictions about the impact of this new technology on teaching and learning were robust and widespread. What we have found in the ensuing years is that computing technology expands the realm of possibilities and enhances teaching and learning but not at reduced cost. Computing technology is another tool available to instructors, not a replacement for that instructor. I have a hard time imagining that MOOCs will replace the bulk of the undergraduate curriculum for most students; what I find intriguing is the possibility that some courses may be offered in this way, thus reducing the time to degree for a few students and enriching the instructional experience for most students.
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