What are MOOCs and Why Do They Matter?

MOOCs may be the most buzz-worthy trend in the world of higher ed, and have quickly become the hot-button issue among educators everywhere.  MOOCs – short for “Massive Open Online Courses” – are real college courses taught online to large numbers of students around the world. MOOCS are made possible through advances in technology and a shifting of the basic paradigm of higher education. What an exciting time to be a student and lifelong learner!

Courses range from Passion Driven Statistics to the more advanced Artificial Intelligence for Robotics.  Up to 100,000 students have enrolled in individual MOOCs, such as Intro to Astronomy.  While some see these free online courses as a harbinger of greater democratization in higher ed, others remain skeptical. Typically, students watch video lectures and complete assignments that are graded either by machines or by other students. The increasing popularity of MOOCs has led to the issue of whether academic credit should be awarded, based on new standards of academic mastery.

Who Offers MOOCs? How Can They Improve Higher Ed?

MOOCS are often designed and taught by professors from some of the most prestigious universities in the US.  There are currently four major players: edX (a non-profit run by Harvard, MIT and Berkeley), Khan Academy (a non profit founded by MIT and Harvard graduate Salman Khan), Coursera and Udacity (both for-profit ventures founded by computer science professors from Stanford, with current members including Princeton, Columbia, Duke, Emory and UVA, among others).

Last year MIT and Harvard contributed $60 million to edX, but made it very clear that they intended to use MOOCs to improve, not supplant, traditional courses.  Princeton professors see MOOCs as an opportunity to bring into the classroom the global perspectives of students from around the world, through Skype.  Through MOOCs, professors could direct students to learn the most basic material in a course at their own pace via online modules, then use the time saved to create more of the opportunities that make great colleges such fertile learning environments: seminars, project-based courses and mentorship opportunities.

What is the Future of MOOCs?

Despite the strong commitment to MOOCs by major providers of higher education, as well as student participants, skeptics offer a host of questions. Some warn of overly standardized modes of teaching and thinking, while others worry about the fact that policing cheating and plagiarism among online students has proven rather difficult. On top of that, no one has quite figured out an effective business model, and MOOCs have so far been financed by large grants from universities and other investors. While funding proposals have ranged from charging for certificates, to in-MOOC advertisements, to Radiohead-style “pay what you want” schemes, it remains to be seen how MOOCs will pave their way forward fiscally.  Many other concerns abound, from grading policies to issues surrounding students who learn differently. We still have much to discover. Meanwhile, MOOCs hold the promise of addressing age-old educational questions in novel ways.