The acronym MOOC stands for ‘Massive Open Online Course’. Examples of MOOCs can be found on American sites such as Coursera, edX and the newly-launched Futurelearn. These sites host multimedia courses taught by professors and graduate students from established traditional educational establishments such as MIT, Stanford, Harvard and other universities around the world.
I have already signed up to a few courses myself including ‘Think Again: How to Reason and Argue’ (a course on logic and arguments) from Duke University, USA, ‘Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology’ (a course on dinosaurs) from the University of Alberta, Canada, and ‘Introduction to forensic science’ by the University of Strathclyde in Scotland.
I really never thought I’d ever get the chance to study dinosaurs. And yet that is exactly what I am doing, thanks to the Dino 101 course on Coursera.
I’d be the first to acknowledge that my choice of courses has been what might be politely called ‘eclectic’. But that’s one of the joys of online learning. When you sign up to three or four years at a bricks-and-mortar university you commit yourself to hours of hard work every day followed (as far as I can recall) by hours of hard drinking every evening. You have to be dedicated to your subject almost to the point of monomania. With online courses, on the other hand, I have the freedom to pick and choose – I might try a bit of civilised argumentation this month followed by a few rampaging prehistoric beasts next month and, just to round off my education, a nice juicy murder investigation set on the murky shores of Loch Lomond…
It seems pretty clear to me that online learning isn’t going to go away. But there are two big questions that remain unanswered: 1) Will it ever replace conventional ‘on site’ learning and 2) how will it be funded?
My own view is that in the short-term, online learning will live alongside conventional study. Increasingly, I think universities will produce courses which, in addition to being accessible to the general public, will also supplement the materials available to full-time students. Moreover, when online courses are taught by world experts in their subjects, these will increasingly be sought out by students whose own professors may not have the same degree of eminence and expertise. In the long-term, I think online study will increasingly replace the predominantly book-based ‘distance learning’ diploma and degree courses provided by institutions such as Britain’s Open University.
As for the funding of these courses. Well, Coursera is currently offering the option of paid-for certification for some courses which, in principle, may provide students with proof of completion to (they say) “demonstrate your initiative when applying for college or jobs.” In future, I imagine that some courses may provide a more rigorous examination and certification that might count towards a formal academic qualification. Harvard is already experimenting with more focussed online courses which it calls SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses). Whether or not this is the right model for the future of university-level online courses remains to be seen.
The other alternative is to forget the whole idea of completely free and open courses and, instead, create paid-for courses that are funded by the students. I have personal experience of this type of teaching. For the past couple of years I’ve been teaching programming courses on Udemy. These are all paid-for and so far I’ve had over 5,200 students sign up – so, clearly, there is a demand for this type of course.
Finally. if you want to learn how to create your own online courses, I have a free course that takes you through the basics. This video gives you a short overview…
For an alternative view, this is Professor Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, one of the teachers on Coursera’s ‘Think Again: How to Reason and Argue’ course, giving some interesting information on how he made that course.