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MOOCs: The Future?


The MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course(s), is a relatively new phenomenon that is changing the face of education. Gone are the traditional days of the little red schoolhouse; the new wave of digital media and the cyberculture we live in today is ushering in a new age of online learning. These online courses, which many well-respected Universities and Colleges throughout the nation are beginning to offer (see Stanford),  bring about various questions. Fordham’s own Lance Strate poses some of these questions which I find particularly interesting in an article he did for Information Week entitled Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are prompting discussion about higher education’s future and business model. Strate opens the article with this…

Can a class contain 100,000 Internet-connected students? Can grading be crowdsourced? Will colleges and universities someday confer certifications on students who’ve never stepped foot on campus, never interacted with a live teacher and never paid a dime?

These are just some of the existential questions confronting academia thanks to massive open online courses, or MOOCs. MOOCs are distinguished as much by their network- and computer-mediated scale as their free-for-all philosophy.

Strate next goes on to discuss the acronym MOOC itself. He suggests that it may have directly descended from acronyms used to describe online gaming such as MMO or MMORPG, which stand for Massive Multiplayer Online and Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, respectively. Strate proposes this idea to suggest that these MOOCs may have very well descended out of the gaming world as opposed to the world of education and therefore perhaps have more to do with entertainment than schooling.  Strate next goes on to use the idea’s of the late great Neil Postman, claiming that the very term Massive brings to mind the idea of mass anything, whether it be culture, consumption, media or communication. He suggests that while these MOOCs may very well have some redeeming qualities, are they really the best model for pedagogical practices?


Why Now?

The first portion of this blog seems to take a rather condescending, pessimistic view of the MOOC in general, so let us take a step back and examine some of the more positive aspects of these cyber courses. In a nutshell, they have various redeeming qualities, including

-Students aren’t forced to attend classes at awkward times

-More conducive to risk-taking and participation

-Economically superior

These are just a few positive points, as their are plenty more, that suggest excellent reasons as to why these types of courses are popping up throughout the country and why many advocates believe that they can flourish and become the wave of the future. This article poses an interesting view on the nature of MOOCs. But again let us take a step back to examine these more closely. Each one conversely has a flip-side. While students are not forced to attend classes that put strain on their schedule or interrupt their daily lives in a profound way, there is no way for anybody to be sure the student is taking the class in the first place, or rather just enlisting a well-educated friend to breeze through it for them. Similarly, students may not feel the need to engage in the class in a meaningful way at all; with a professor/classroom setting, students often feel obliged to engage the environment in the way the professor intended. With a massive online course, this obligation disappears entirely. While these courses also may indeed be more conducive to risk-taking, as it is certainly difficult to argue that in 2013 most students are exponentially more comfortable behind a computer screen than in front of their peers in a classroom, this greater participation does not exactly translate to more effective learning. With thousands of students engaging in the course, often the students have little to no direct communication with the professor. If students can not interact directly with the human who is supposed to be teaching them the material, is this really conducive to effective learning? Finally, the economic aspect comes into play. It is impossible to argue that a 2,000 course at a university is more economically sound than a free class online with the same material. Yet most scholars opposed to MOOCs argue that you simply get what you pay for. Our Digital Media and Cyberculture class is a phenomenal example of the advantage of the intimate, professor/student/classroom setting. Each week, the nine of us gather in a small room with Prof. Plugh and engage directly in a more conversation rather than lecture based formate, posing questions, engaging with one another and watching relevant material together in an effort to analyze and discuss it. It creates an environment that we seem to be comfortable with that enables us to learn in an effective, personal way.

What a guy huh?

What a guy huh?

MOOCs do not offer the same level of intimacy or a personal relationship with the professor or peers.

“It’s not an accident [these] are coming out of the most prestigious and well-endowed universities,” Lance Strate, professor of communication and media studies and director of the Professional Studies in New Media program at Fordham University said in a phone interview. The initiatives are, he said, “in some ways, a kind of publicity stunt to help reinforce the image of these [schools] as leading institutions of higher education.” Fordham has no MOOCs, nor plans for one, according to Strate.”

What Next?


Writer Clay Shirky provides an ominous outlook on the state of MOOCs relating to what Mr. Strate was proposing above. Shirky seems to think that if these courses become the norm, than we run the risk that education could go the route of media industries, with a few small conglomerates dominating the landscape of education. Institutions like Harvard and Yale could become to equivalent of Time Warner or Disney. Kind of scary, no? In a recent article for TechnologyReview.com, author Tom Simonite proposes that while some aspects of the MOOC are great, such as peer grading, which calculates grades for coursework based on feedback from other students, other data challenges the effective of such courses when an enormous number of students are enrolled. Another enormous problem is the fact that completion rates for these courses hover somewhere around 10%. That isn’t exactly the completion rate one would expect at the University level. Luckily, MOOC providers like Coursera, use this data to improve online learning.

“The data we are collecting is unprecedented in education,” says Andrew Ng, a cofounder of MOOC provider Coursera and an associate professor at Stanford University. “We see every mouse click and keystroke. We know if a user clicks one answer and then selects another, or fast-forwards through part of a video.”

With well respected researchers and professors throughout the nation aiming to improve the state of MOOCs and online education in general, I have no doubt that the trend will continue and we as a society will find more effective ways to educate the masses using the greatest tool we have today, the internet. Yet until such practices can be honed and nearly perfected, it is important that we do not stray to far from the traditional methods of education that we have retained for thousands of years, since the days of the infamous Greek philosophers.



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