Why MOOCs Matter

Unless you’ve been locked away for the past year finishing your dissertation, then you know that MOOCs—massive open online courses—are about the biggest thing to happen in higher education since … well, since the invention of chalk. Some are suggesting that MOOCs may be bigger than chalk, but frankly, that remains to be seen.

After all, MOOCs are hardly five years old. Arguably the first MOOC was conducted in 2008 by two Canadian educators George Siemens and Stephen Downes at the University of Manitoba, when they opened the Internet doors to their Connectivism and Connective Knowledge course, and 2,300 students from around the world registered. Buoyed by their success, Siemens and Downes offered more MOOCs over the next several years, and soon, others were copying the idea, but the big commercial break came in August, 2011, when Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun offered his artificial intelligence course as a MOOC. Over 160,000 students enrolled. Thrun was so ecstatic that he quit his prestigious position at Stanford and, in early 2012, started Udacity, the first MOOC company. Coursera and edX followed shortly thereafter. In the year since the founding of Udacity, universities around the world, including some of the most prestigious, have offered hundreds of MOOCs to hundreds of thousands of students.

MOOCs are a big deal.

But should the average teacher or school administrator care? Yes. MOOCs potentially can disrupt both the pedagogies and the economics of education—what we do and how we fund it. And the disruption may start with higher education, but it will spread to all levels of education from kindergarten to corporate training. To understand why, we must first understand what a MOOC is. The name itself gives us some useful clues. Spelling it backwards defines a MOOC as:

  • Course – MOOCs are courses with specific start and end dates, regular meeting times, a more-or-less defined topic of study, facilitator/s, and activities and assessments.
  • Online – While a MOOC may be part of an actual face-to-face course at a university, most students access the course online through computers or mobile devices.
  • Open – MOOCs can be open in at least two ways. All MOOCs are open access: students don’t have to enroll in the sponsoring organization, and they don’t have to pay, unless they want some kind of credit or certification. The main barrier to access is that students must have an Internet connected device. Second, some MOOCs are open content: they encourage students to take the course content, remix it, repurpose it, add their own content, and feed it back into the course ecosystem. In the words of Dave Cormier, an early MOOC pioneer at the University of Prince Edward Island, the community is the curriculum.
  • Massive – MOOCs typically have incredibly large numbers of students, usually thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of participants.

As you can see, MOOCs are not totally new. Open education has been a hot topic since the advent of public education, and classes have been online since the beginning of the Internet. Still, MOOCs have emerged at a time when many are questioning how we educate and many others are questioning how we pay for education.

MOOCs greatly threaten the way we have traditionally taught. In traditional education, students travel to a school where an expert teacher transfers knowledge and tests students to see how much of that knowledge they take away. The advent of the Internet, the world’s most effective content-delivery system, is upsetting that paradigm. Flipped classes, Khan Academy, YouTube, iTunes University, and more online services deliver more content to more students than any teacher can ever hope to manage in a lifetime. Students don’t need to travel to knowledge, knowledge can travel to them. Prof. Douglas Thomas of the University of Southern California suggests that to stay relevant, schools and teachers must shift from content to context. MOOCs, especially the connectivist variety of Siemens and Downes, are ideal vehicles for shifting the focus of education from the teacher to the student. In MOOCs, the teacher becomes not just the guide on the side, but a fellow knowmad, a co-learner exploring the same emerging curriculum as the students, though with a more-developed sense of the lay of the land, privileged by more experience, not by centralized, formal authority. Unlike traditional teachers who set the endpoint of learning, MOOC teachers set the beginning point, and students are assessed not so much by what value they take away from the course as by what value they bring to the course.


Students don’t need to travel to knowledge, knowledge can travel to them.


MOOCs not only threaten what we do, but how we pay for it. Just like the music industry a decade ago, education is losing its monopoly on the goods and services it sells, and this is forcing many to question if the legacy infrastructure is worth sustaining. If most anything that can be learned in school (K12 or higher ed) can be learned on the Internet, then why are we building all these expensive buildings?  What Apple and Google have done to the music and newspaper industries, someone—perhaps even Google or Apple—will soon do to the education industry. IF education doesn’t do it first. If education continues to focus on content delivery, then it has already lost.

Then, at a time in history when millions of new students are seeking education, especially higher education in the emerging economies of Brazil, India, and China, traditional education is simply too expensive and too hard to get. The World cannot build institutions quickly enough to satisfy the exploding demand. MOOCs may not be the ultimate answer to education’s dysfunctional economic model, but they certainly point more confidently toward the answer than do brick-and-mortar, Nineteenth Century classrooms. The economies of scale afforded by MOOCs are too tempting for schools—or businesses—to ignore.

So what’s a dedicated educator to do? Pretending that this wave is not coming simply isn’t an option. Rather, educators must learn MOOCs from the inside. Take a MOOC—they’re free. You can find hundreds of MOOCs listed at www.mooc.ca, a website devoted to MOOCs and maintained by Stephen Downes, one of the originators of MOOCs. If you join the site, then you can subscribe to a daily newsletter that tracks the conversation about MOOCs. Even if you think MOOCs are the enemy of education, it’s better to know your enemy than not.

If you suspect that MOOCs are not the enemy, then use them for your own professional and personal enrichment. One of the great benefits of MOOCs is that you can explore an interest even if it isn’t part of your professional field. An English teacher, for instance, might take an edX course on the Introduction to Statistics. Why not? After all, it’s a massive, open, online world. And it’s free.


Original image courtesy of Flickr, thart2009

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