It's a MOOC Point

Stephanie Small - July 18, 2013


MOOC: Massive Online Open CoursesUnless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard the word “MOOC” crop up in conversations about the internet and higher education.  MOOC stands for “Massive Online Open Course”, and that’s exactly what MOOC’s are.

Distance learning has been a concept in academia for centuries. In “A History of Instructional Technology” Paul Saettler reports the evolution of distance learning began with correspondence courses as early as the 1890’s.  Correspondence courses eventually began integrating new technologies using “talking motion pictures” during the 20th century.  Arguably the first incarnation of a MOOC originated in the 1990’s and was delivered via email.

The term “MOOC” originated at the University of Manitoba in 2008, and MOOC’s are now one of the hottest (and most controversial) topics in education.  Programs that deliver MOOC’s include Coursera, Udacity, and Academicroom; these programs are created in partnership with schools including Stanford, MIT and Harvard.

A 2013 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education offers some statistics on MOOC’s. The median number of participants participating in a class is 33,000, with 2,600 receiving a passing grade. Professors typically spend 100 hours preparing their MOOC, with 8-10 hours spent on the course weekly.

There are a number of advantages to MOOC’s.  First, MOOC’s enable anyone with a computer and an internet connection to access some of the highest-quality professors in the world. If education has the potential to be the great equalizer, MOOC’s have the potential to revolutionize lives.  Also, MOOC’s are convenient. You can participate in your MOOC anywhere; again, all you need is your computer and an internet connection.  Taking a MOOC might be a good way to see if you have the discipline and motivation to earn an online degree. Finally, MOOCs are free. Enough said.

Of course, as with anything, MOOC’s have their drawbacks. This is especially true because MOOC’s are in their infancy.  One potential pitfall students may encounter involves digital literacy.  Students must have some familiarity with using the internet – and they must actually have access to a computer and internet connection.  While MOOC’s open up educational opportunities to people across the world, those without technology cannot take advantage.

Another problem: a ratio of one professor to potentially 100,000 students means professor-student interaction is usually non-existent.  This differs from a lecture format at a ground school because MOOC professors are, in many cases, altogether inaccessible for individual interaction. This may not be a problem for some students. However, students who are inspired and invigorated by dialogue with their professor will likely be disappointed.

In addition, online discussion groups are the primary mode of student-to-student interaction. This may be fine for some students. Others, who value face-to-face connection, may feel less fulfilled.

It’s also easy to cheat. Again, this may be a plus for some students, and it’s no big deal if someone is taking the class recreationally. However, it’s a huge problem if MOOC’s eventually count as actual course credit (they currently don’t).

Finally, MOOC’s tend to have a very high attrition rate. The magazine “Inside Higher Ed” quotes the average dropout rate as 90%.

Despite the drawbacks, checking out a MOOC is really a no-fail proposition. They’re free, convenient, and relatively simple to access, provided you have a computer. Why not try one?


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