The trend toward Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has commanded attention from the press, higher education administrators, educators and students around the world. Yet there is tremendous confusion about what MOOCs are and what they can actually deliver to students. This confusion complicates the discussions about them and misleads nearly everyone.
MOOCs have rattled higher education’s cage. They are helping us to see how to escape the boundaries around the learning process that have inhibited us for so long. Let’s understand MOOCs and see them for what they are and are not.
To help create a better understanding of what MOOCs are, I’ve put together my top-five list of MOOC “nots.”
1. MOOCs are not online courses
But they sure look a lot like online courses! By definition, MOOCs are free, light on instructor supervision, with students not receiving individual attention from teachers. However, MOOCs continue to be considered as online courses for several reasons:
- Most MOOCs, so far, are derived from credit-bearing courses at the undergraduate level;
- Most MOOCs are so well designed that the learning pathway is clear for most students; and,
- Much attention is being paid to the granting of credit for MOOCs so MOOCs might serve in place of online courses for some students.
Unfortunately, these factors add up to unrealistic expectations for MOOCs as well as misleading predictions about their impact.
2. MOOCs will not replace teaching
Instead, they can enhance teaching and provide access to learners around the world. MOOCs are created, not instructed, by professors and instructors. Highly motivated students may be able to master the material of MOOCs just as they might learn from books on their own. So far, the majority of MOOC students have been sophisticated consumers of higher education — those already possessing a degree. This is not typical in higher education because we know most students prefer the guidance of an instructor.
3. MOOCs are really not “open”
MOOCs, even in their purest form, lack many important aspects of full openness. For instance, a MOOC typically can’t be downloaded as a complete course and certainly can’t be used by institutions without a separate license. This also applies to individual parts of a course. The learning assets that make up a MOOC generally cannot be reused or modified for specific purposes.
4. MOOCs won’t be “massive” forever
The rapid expansion of MOOCs and MOOC providers, particularly those associated with higher education institutions, will divide the market even as the market grows. MOOCs will move from general education and undergraduate courses to special courses for defined audiences. While some of those audiences will be very large, the range of choice within any particular market will increase and diversify among subjects, providers and formats. Higher education administrators should adjust to the fact that the purpose of MOOCs will shift from institutional visibility to institutional service.
5. MOOCs will not disrupt higher education
However, they will threaten the status quo. In fact, MOOCs are more likely to help institutions and faculty improve learning by providing feedback on effective learning objects and practices, student learning outcomes and teaching methods. MOOCs will accelerate learning innovation and provide new horizons for learning research.
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