So much has been said and written about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) it’s possible to read just about any forecast in the tea leaves: MOOCs will save higher education or destroy it. MOOCs are yesterday’s news or have not yet begun to show their potential.
The truth likely lies somewhere in between.
We may not know the true value of MOOCs for decades — and it may not come from MOOCs themselves, but from the ripples they set off in higher education. But we’re learning from them every day.
Here are three widespread misconceptions about the role and promise of MOOCs:
1. MOOCs should be evaluated by the same standards we use to evaluate traditional classes
By those standards, the MOOC dropout rate is alarmingly high and the completion rate (as low as five to 10 percent) preposterously low. Based on those numbers, some critics have dismissed MOOCs as a flash-in-the-pan. But as others have noted, people sign up for MOOCs for all sorts of reasons –– to learn something new, to interact with fellow learners from around the world, to find out what the buzz is about. With only an email address required to register, many people who sign up have no intention of, or interest in, completing the course. I’ve dropped out of half a dozen MOOCs myself — and I got exactly what I wanted out of them. In some cases I wanted to observe the pedagogical practices of other institutions and, in others, I was interested in the use of media and learning design. In Penn State University’s “Maps and the Geospatial Revolution” MOOC, 306 students registered (and paid) at the beginning of the course for a track that would allow them to have their work verified and earn certificates — and 306 students earned those certificates, for a completion rate of 100 percent. The focus on retention and attrition misses the most important point, which is the intentionality of the student.
2. A MOOC should generate revenue
There are many returns on investment (ROIs) for MOOCs, but they may not be monetary. At Penn State, MOOCs are attracting new students to our existing online programs. They’re creating online learning communities around the world and providing us with a wealth of data for future pedagogical research. I recently spoke with a doctoral student looking at MOOCs for her research in intercultural communication — how a student from China might look at a course compared to a student from South Africa, for example. Penn State faculty members are taking components of MOOCs –– such as discussion forums and social media –– and using them in traditional classroom-based courses. And MOOCs have prompted many faculty members to take a new look at the role of instructional design. Those are all ROIs.
3. MOOCs are a cure for all that ails higher education
There is, of course, the reverse perception: MOOCs spell doom for traditional colleges and universities.
Champions of MOOCs have jumped on them as the solution to rising tuitions and the needs of a changing student body less able to afford the cost or time commitment of a traditional four-year college education. Critics say MOOCs could put all but the most nimble institutions out of business. I believe neither is true. For Penn State, and I suspect many other universities, MOOCs are a pilot program, just one of many innovations we’re testing and hoping to learn from. We don’t know what the future will look like, but we need to be a part of it. Exploring the benefits and possibilities of MOOCs is just one way to do that.
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