December 4, 2013
Echoing the first word of their acronym, MOOCs have become massive.
The massive open online courses, which in general don't result in academic credit, have proven incredibly popular in the past few years, as universities across the U.S. have raced to put verbal, audio, and video lectures and other coursework online for students to access. Estimates of students currently enrolled in MOOCs run in the millions.
MOOC courses resemble traditional in-person instruction, in that the basis is still the lecture, delivered by an instructor. Some MOOCs offer only a basic setup of a video of a lecture; others take advantage of the Web's capability to offer more interactive features. Students do homework, take quizzes and sometimes a final exam; teaching assistants provide some feedback, including results. Unlike in-person classes, however, MOOC students do not receive formal academic credit for their efforts.
Many of America's most well-known universities offer MOOCs. Course topics mirror existing for-credit listings, although many of the listings deal with computer and internet-related topics. And, for the first time, some universities are offering limited credit for MOOC students.
One key element of most MOOCs is an online discussion forum, in which students and instructors enter into discussions about course work, topics, and future directions. Such forums require monitoring, of course, and that creates a need filled by volunteers, for the most part, although some forums feature paid moderators.
The rapid growth of the industry has resulted in many high-profile providers, some of them for-profit. One well-known MOOC provider is Coursera, which was founded in 2012 and already has nearly 2 million signups. Coursera offers content from dozens of well-known universities, including Brown, Columbia, Duke, and Princeton.
Another well-known for-profit MOOC provider is Udacity, a California company with expansive listings.
An even newer provider is edX, a nonprofit funded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that has nearly 400,000 students in its first semester of offerings. (MIT had earlier created a standalone MOOC titled MITx. Elite west coast university Stanford has its own system, Class2Go.
Among the drawbacks experienced by MOOC students, other than the satisfaction of gaining formal credit toward a degree, is the sometimes small amount of attention they get from instructors. For their parts, instructors, teaching assistants, and other educational professionals who help monitor MOOC progress, that's the reality of having such a large number of students in the class, a normal problem in large-numbered classes that is magnified by the sheer numbers enrolled in some MOOCs. One recent Stanford MOOC had 46,000 students enrolled initially.
Another issue is, for the assignments and/or exams that are graded, providing access to graders. Coursera solves this problem by having students grade other students' papers, on a five-to-five ratio: Each student agrees to grade five assignments for each one he or she submits, and each of those assignments is, in turn, graded by five other students (providing, presumably, a spread of performance reporting).
MOOCs are not only in America, either. Australia (Open2Study), France (FUN), Germany (Iversity), India (EduKart), Ireland (ALISON), Japan (Schoo), the United Kingdom (Open University), and the European Union (OpenupEd) have introduced the learning opportunities, either through partnerships with existing U.S. MOOCs or through their own systems.
For some, MOOCs are the natural, computer-based evolution of distance learning. For others, MOOCs are a revolution in how people learn.