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How MOOCs Are Changing the Way People Learn


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An article in The Atlantic called them “the single most important experiment in higher education.” The New York Times referred to them as a “game-changer.” Hundreds of academics are either anxiously awaiting their development or decrying their existence as a threat to learning as we know it.

They’re called MOOCs and, for good or bad, they’re causing a massive shift in the way people look at the experience of gaining an education.

What are MOOCs?

The acronym “MOOC” stands for “massively open online course.” These online courses tend to be huge – often enrolling hundreds or even thousands of students per course. They are massively open in more ways than one. They offer open enrollment, allowing anyone interested to sign up. They are openly available (i.e. free), permitting students to register without paying tuition. And they trade a closed, linear curriculum for an open curriculum that draws on other freely available resources and provides students with several pathways to learn.

How are MOOCs Different from Previous Free Online Classes?

Free online classes are nothing new. For years, major universities have offered free learning content in the form of opencourseware. Programs like MIT Opencourseware and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative freely offered course syllabi, recorded lectures, notes, and other content taken from their traditional courses. However, there were some major problems with opencourseware.

First, learners usually didn’t have access to enough information to really master the content. A syllabus or a few recorded lectures gave learners a good start, but it wasn’t enough to guide them through the content like a traditional course would. Many opencourseware resources didn’t make so much sense without the content provided – students were missing the in-class discussions, the guest lectures, the assignments, the class demonstrations, and often even the textbook.

Second, opencourseware initiatives gave learners few options to study as a part of a community. People reviewed the content in isolation and tried to learn without access to peers or professors. Many found that it was difficult to stay motivated or keep going when there was no easy way to get answers to their questions.

MOOCs seek to change all that. Rather than offering some of the materials used in a traditional classroom, MOOCs are designed from the ground up for online learners themselves. MOOCs offer everything students need to learn – whether they provide the content themselves or simply offer links to many of the freely available resources that are needed. Students using MOOCs generally have access to readings, activities, discussion boards, quizzes, etc. Additionally, MOOCs provide learners with authentic communities. They often have professors (or coaches / guides) that help run the class and answer questions. Learners can also connect with their peers to discuss the content, share ideas, and sometimes even help administrate the class.

How Will MOOCs Change Education as We Know It?

MOOCs are already a big hit in rural communities and developing countries where people don’t have as much access to traditional schools. But, they may eventually impact the way people everywhere learn and get an education.

If this big “experiment” is successful, people all around the world will have access to high-quality, community-based online classes without having to pay a dime. MOOCs will allow people to educate themselves based on what they want to learn. Stay-at-home parents can take real classes in their spare time to stay current, business people can improve their resumes, and high schoolers can get a head start on college when they’re bored.

Eventually, schools and employers might start taking MOOCs more seriously. Some MOOCs are already offering certificates to those that complete their courses. In the future, MOOC learners may be able to use this certificate to qualify for employment or even earn an entire online degree for free by progressing through an approved series of no-cost, high-quality courses.

Why are Some People Afraid of MOOCs?

Not everyone is praising the development of massively open online courses. Many academics are concerned that MOOCs and associated online colleges will replace traditional face-to-face interactions. They are worried that the world will have fewer scholars as traditional instructors are replaced with low-paid (or even non-compensated) coaches or guides. Some academics are also concerned that MOOCs will interfere with the goal of providing undergraduate students with a well-rounded liberal arts education and instead encourage colleges to adopt a more skills-based curriculum.

Another potential issue is that MOOCs aren’t really free. In order to produce these high quality resources, someone has to pay for them even if it isn’t the students. Currently, MOOCs are being created with massive funding from participating universities and private for-profit businesses. In the future, it is possible that these groups will ultimately charge learners for the experience. Critics worry that there will be fewer traditional options available should MOOCS no longer be quite so openly available.

MOOCs to Check Out

You can take a high-quality online course designed just for virtual learners by checking out our editorially-reviewed list of the Top Massively Open Online Courses.

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