I sometimes wonder if massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a sustainable business model. I wonder whether colleges and universities may soon come to question the wisdom of providing their courses for free (not unlike the way newspapers rethought their decision to give away their content for free). But while I might wonder about the supply of such free courses in the future, I have little doubt the growing legion of “autonomous learners” will assure a steady demand for MOOCs. MOOCs are a critical part of the emerging model of autonomous learning, where learners choose the courses that best fit a learning profile established by the learner. Autonomous learners work through courses at their own pace and at a price they can afford.
An autonomous learner is an autodidact, learning in a more formal, structured setting. To develop a sense of what an “autonomous learner” looks like, consider this diagram explaining Mozilla’s Open Badges platform, which provides autonomous learners an organizational structure to manage their autonomous learning online.
The autonomous learner is not confined to one institution, meaning he or she can learn from any number of institutions and providers. The learner does not belong to a cohort of fellow classmates and is also untethered from the traditional course. In this model of autonomous learning, a “course” now includes not only a traditional 15-week, 40 hours-in-a-seat class but also prior learning assessments, self-paced online courses, training that occurs on the job, autodidactic reading in a library, artistic and cultural production in one’s studio and so on. It is within this context that MOOCs are becoming an important part of the autonomous learner’s portfolio.
The credit-bearing course is increasingly being untethered from the university. One implication is that MOOCs will come not only from traditional higher education institutions, but also from new providers. The Economist, for example, has started to offer courses. These courses are not free, but they give reasons to believe more education providers will be entering this market. Imagine online courses from McKinsey and Apple, or MOOCs from art museums and science centers. These and other non-traditional higher education providers will very likely join in the business of providing courses for autonomous learners.
Autonomous learning is different from autodidacticism in that an institution provides some structure and verification of learning, and facilitates self-paced and self-directed learning. I can envision an innovative and entrepreneurial university that follows Mozilla’s lead, defining their core mission as serving as a “platform” for autonomous learners. These universities will offer their own self-paced courses, but will also validate knowledge students have learned from any number of sources, including MOOCs from other institutions.
I predict the number of autonomous learners will grow such that they will become an important segment of the market for higher education, and the greater availability of MOOCs will fuel this growth.
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