They’re called ‘MOOCs’ (Massive Open Online Courses) and they’re springing up at universities across the globe. Free of charge, open to all and accessed remotely, the courses look set to change higher education forever. Out of House explores this uniquely modern educational phenomenon, and what it could mean for the future of learning.
The idea of using technology to teach students remotely isn’t a new one – the Open University began broadcasting TV lectures in 1969. But doing so without setting course-entry requirements and completely free of charge is groundbreaking.
The brainchild of Canadian educational theorist Dave Cormier and two academics from the University of Manitoba, MOOCs are fast becoming the learning experience of choice for students everywhere. After all, what could be more tempting for a would-be scholar than receiving an education anywhere on the planet without paying a penny – and at a time to suit them? We have to admit, it does sound good.
MOOCs have gone from strength to strength in just a few years. The first was launched in 2008 by the pioneering Manitoba trio (mentioned above); 2,300 people signed up. In 2011, Sebastian Thrun, a professor at Stanford University, offered a MOOC in Artificial Intelligence that attracted 160,000 students (of those, 23,000 graduated). And the first MOOC from Edinburgh University catered to 100,000 students – four times the campus population.
Thrun has now set up his own MOOC university – Udacity. Another, also based at Stanford, is Coursera, which boasts a jaw-dropping 5 million students and offers 400 courses from 85 universities across all five continents. The MOOC star is clearly rising – and no wonder, when you consider today’s sky-high degree tuition fees and the vast power and reach of the Internet.
In many respects, this educational innovation is a win-win situation. Students, of course, are happy to be receiving an educational freebie from some of the world’s foremost academics, while lecturers are delighted to be sharing their wisdom on such a grand scale. And the universities themselves seem to be benefitting from a MOOC-friendly status, which boosts their popularity and renown and, ultimately, increases enrollment numbers on traditional, fee-paying courses.
Anant Agarwal, founder of edX, a non-profit MOOC centre that distributes content from MIT, Harvard and Berkeley, said: ‘It’s the biggest innovation to happen in education in 200 years’.
A way to go
So what’s the catch? As yet, MOOC certificates are not widely recognised by employers or as credits that can go towards full degrees at universities. Sceptics insist that their quality is compromised by untested assessment methods and the lack of an effective cheat-control system. And, of course, many believe that an online seminar or lecture is an inadequate substitute for the energy and creativity of classroom learning.
But it’s early days, and the MOOC model is a work-in-progress. If we are to see the potential in the idea of virtual learning, we must first accept that it is (and will always be) an entirely different experience from a traditional education. These courses represent high-level learning at its most experimental and exciting, and they’re setting a powerful precedent in the ever-evolving world of eLearning. Only this month, tech giant Google followed suit with the launch of its Helpouts – free and paid-for one-on-one online tutorials across a spectrum of disciplines.
As L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT, recently said: ‘There is a new world unfolding, and everyone will have to adapt’.