What’s in a MOOC? (Week 6)

According to the gateway for all accurate information on the internet [Wikipedia] Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are online courses “aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web.” A fairly straight forward definition that does nothing to illuminate the impact they have made on the education market. Or perhaps not made, depending upon who you ask.


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I know that sounds cryptic, but so are Massive Open Online Courses to a certain degree. IF you’re “in the know,” i.e. if you’re an educator or a techie or someone looking to finish a degree, then you’ve probably at least heard of MOOCs. If not then the concept is probably as foreign to you as it was to me a few months ago.

I’ve always thought that the education system was a bit of a scam. Sure, public education is mandatory in the United States until age 16. However not all public schools are created equally, and a high school certificate only goes so far. White collar employers are awash with candidates with high level graduate and professional degrees from top level schools. Schools with substantial price tags attached to their well establish brand names. The average middle American student is damned if they do and damned if they don’t, but for whatever reason they generally do invest in overpriced secondary educations. And so the cycle goes on and education and opportunity in the United States continue to be available to the elites. Just as they were in Ancient Greece, when access to the gymnasiums were only granted to those with the citizenship status, money, and the time to spend on an education rather than tending the fields.

I know it’s a far-reaching metaphor, but any historian will tell you that the “ivory tower” of academia has been and continues to be an elite phenomenon. We are literally signing our life savings away for the privilege of having access to information. So what would happen if that information were to be offered to anyone and everyone, free of charge?

That is the driving concept behind the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. According to David Cormier, the man who supposedly coined the term “MOOC” in 2008, the purpose of a MOOC is to be more than a digital correspondence course or another form of distance education. A MOOC, in his words, provides “access to information about a topic” through a platform “built for a world where information is everywhere.” Still confused? You can find his full description in his video “What is a MOOC?” on his personal YouTube channel. He goes on to state that “MOOC is not a school.” Rather, a collaborative community that fosters the sharing of information between interested learners and qualified instructors. It is not divorced from accredited online education; those enrolled in MOOCs can still receive credit for participating in them by enrolling in a university’s online education program. However, the purpose is to not have to pay for participation in a conversation. It is an extension of academia and academic communities to include any and all interested parties, regardless of their age, socio-economic status, or academic credentials. All interested parties welcome.

But Cormier didn’t invent the MOOC, he just named it. He’s not even a professor. His professional title is Manager of Web Communications and Innovations at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is a collaborator in the MOOC universe who maintains that a MOOC is the original question, the collaborative discussion and the collective answer to that question. You can read his thoughts on MOOCs here on his personal blog. Because he’s just a person, albeit one who was savvy enough to actively observe changes in secondary education as early as 2008. He does not insist that the MOOC as a concept is infallible. Simply that it is important to the larger conversation about digital education.

The fallibility of the MOOC is one of the main points of contention amongst its critics. MOOCs tend to have an incredibly low completion rate. In many cases up to 80% of those who enroll in MOOCs drop the course or simply fail to complete it, especially if completion of the course requires keeping up with regular assignments. Many take issue with its collaborative nature. What is the role of the highly qualified, tenured professor in the digital world of the MOOC? Furthermore, do MOOCs seek to replace the classroom and the “ivory tower” altogether? There is a really great opinion piece “In Defense of Teacher Learning” that explores the value of the unique experience of being in a traditional classroom to be found in the hyperlinked text. It does justice to the lack of nuance in the highly polarized media debate surrounding MOOCs in which only two camps seem to exist; either you’re for MOOCs or you aren’t.

I can see the validity in the confusion surrounding MOOCs. I can see why educators, professionals and students are both highly enthusiastic and highly critical about such an open ended concept. However the debate should not be centered on whether or not MOOCs are a valid equivalent to the college degree, because clearly they aren’t. They are a way in which technology has made information more accessible to interested parties, and even as such they stake no claim in being the only valid vehicle for perpetuating freedom of information.


As a follow up to my last post on the evolving geography of the “classroom of the future” I found this article on 21 things that will be obsolete in the classroom by 2020. Some of it I had touched on in my post, such as forgoing desks for a more “flowing” layout involving work tables and group learning environments. Others seem more intuitive or far fetched, like the elimination of lockers. Either way, I think the article makes a valid point about how the integration of technology in schools is changing the physical structure of the classroom.