Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are getting a lot of attention these days. At the recent Sloan Consortium Annual Conference on Online Learning, I attended presentations and participated in conversations focused on how MOOC design and delivery are gaining popularity at academic institutions, as well as with educators and students.
It was a topic on everyone’s mind. An article titled “Free, Online and Ivy League” was coincidentally featured in Delta’s SKY magazine on my flight to and from the event – there was no escaping the MOOC it seems. These courses hold the promise of educating large numbers of learners, without requiring tuition or fees, in an online format.
Sebastian Thrun’s keynote address was one of the highlights of The Sloan Consortium event. He gave an inspirational presentation on his experience of teaching a MOOC and the founding of Udacity, demonstrating video lessons and quizzes, and providing feedback from some of his students (more than 150,000 unexpectedly enrolled in his first open course at Stanford.)
Thrun’s talk sparked a lot of backchannel discussion including a call for a comparison of some of the latest MOOC sponsors. How are they similar to and different from each other? While it’s clear that there is no single format for a MOOC or MOOC-like offering, several categories are starting to emerge, among them: connectivist, entrepreneurial/organizational, and special interest.
This seems to be where it all started. Open education advocates, including Dave Cormier, George Siemens, Stephen Downes, and David Wiley, offering courses using freely accessible materials and tools. Through reusing, revising, remixing, and redistributing, they create new learning opportunities and invite us to participate, sometimes as a publicly available extension of their campus-based courses.
Relying heavily on wikis, blogs, and social media, these courses were, and continue to be, more organic than some of the newer approaches. Students individually and collectively make decisions about the objectives they will pursue and how they will progress in the course. Networking is also a major activity as students connect with each other in these courses from a wide variety of perspectives and locations.
ConnectivistMoocs.org provides more detailed explanations from the originators, as well as a list of current and future connectivist MOOCs. Take a look at last year’s eduMOOC, led by the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois, Springfield, as an additional example.
Entrepreneurial and Organizational
This category includes those courses that fit the MOOC description but are offered through independent organizations, sometimes in partnership with colleges and universities. These typically have a more structured approach, not unlike formal academic courses, and often provide proof of completion and learning achievement through certificates or digital learning badges. Academic credit may also available, but usually involves a fee-based evaluation process.
Coursera and Udacity are two of the more widely known organizations offering this type of course, with a focus on mastery learning and learning assessment. These courses are increasingly the result of collaboration between the organization and individual universities through which online learning options are expanding and evolving.
EdX, a not-for-profit organization, is also partnering with colleges and universities, and emerged from collaborative initiatives at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It is focused on collecting information and conducting research about online learning and learners through the delivery of MOOC-like courses.
The courses in this category share some of the features of connectivist and entrepreneurial MOOCs. They offer an alternative to traditional professional development and networking, and may include options leading to documented learning through certificates, badges, or academic credit. The experience is somewhat structured, may or may not be affiliated with a specific college or university, and is focused on a specific topic.
Recent examples include:
- MobiMOOC: held last month and focused on mobile learning.
- Virtual School MOOC: presenting topics related to K-12 online learning.
- GamesMOOC: ongoing now for those interested in games-based learning.
- BlendKit2012: also going on now and led by faculty at the University of Central Florida for those interested in designing and developing a blended learning course.
The three categories presented in this post are my interpretation, and help me to describe the phenomenon, but they are not clearly defined. There is some overlapping of purpose, delivery, and audience (e.g., GamesMOOC and BlendKit are listed on the connectivist MOOC site), each course has a central topic or special interest, etc. And there are other approaches to describing the types of MOOCs available (read Lisa M. Lane’s “Three Kinds of MOOCs” highlighting network, task, and content orientation.)
Benefits and Challenges Ahead
The communities formed in these courses often create and leave behind a wide variety of artifacts including video presentations, discussion forums, and reference materials. These contribute to the growing catalog of online resources from which we can all learn. And when granted an open license, we can further reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute.
Thrun, in an interview for The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted after his Sloan keynote presentation, was quoted as saying “the medium doesn’t fit everybody, that’s very important. … Dropout rates for courses of this type are still on the order of 90 percent.” While there is some debate as to whether this is good or bad in the context of MOOCs, for many educators, including Thrun, this is something to target for improvement.
If you haven’t experienced a MOOC, consider finding an upcoming course. Understand the benefits and challenges you can expect as a MOOC learner and compare the options available. Sonic Foundry created a helpful chart earlier this year titled “Comparisons of MOOCs and MOOC-like Initiatives” [PDF] that provides a quick look at credentials, instructors, and types of interaction (i.e., synchronous, asynchronous).
There is no shortage of opinion about the pros and cons of MOOCs. And as quickly as we try to pin down the specifics, the tools and methods change and new options emerge. MOOCs may not be the way of the future, but one of many new ways forward as higher education evolves to meet the needs of those who want to learn.