The MOOC: Online education, super-sized

| November 11, 2012

Image credit: Michael Morgenstern for the Chronicle of Higher Education

Reposted from Pressible.

In case you have been too enclosed in the physical beauty of the Teachers College (or a similar institution’s) hallways, libraries, and cafeteria to hear about it, there’s a whole other kind of higher education going on out there–in cyberspace. And it’s huge. It’s so huge that big-name universities including MIT and its peers are rushing to be in the vanguard of the newest development: the massive open online course. That’s right, the next biggest thing in online education has a very large name as well. Lucky for us and for its greater general appeal, the massive open online course has been abbreviated to the more mysterious and futuristic “MOOC.”

So what’s a MOOC? It’s a university course taught by a single faculty member to hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of students. They’re free, open, and online. Perhaps most of all, they’re a hot topic.

While online education has been around for a good while now, MOOCs began this year when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun left his teaching job and decided to found Udacity, a MOOC platform, instead. He famously got 160,000 students to sign up for his course on artificial intelligence this past spring. With those numbers and the perception that MOOCs will save financially strapped universities money, a frenzy began that has been raging particularly within university administrations for several months now.

Jumping into the dialogue is the Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent special little insert just on MOOCs, which offered a close look at their problems and possibilities. Katherine Magan offers a clear overview of some of the most timely issues concerning MOOCs, from the development of software by the likes of Berkeley, MIT, and Harvard to support them to whether students should get credit for taking them. The question of whether MOOCs really save universities money is also one yet to be fully hashed out.

Varying voices from professors reveal that some love the freedom and stardom that comes with teaching MOOCs (garnering fans of the “will you marry me”-on-the-jumbotron ilk) while others remain skeptical.

It may be too soon to determine how MOOCs might change higher education. Yet, in a sector that is usually slow to introduce major changes (another article in the regular Chronicle this week heralded the endurance of the university as an institution that still adheres to some of its founding principles from the early middle ages), it’s certainly worth noting something that could be causing such a tizzy in so little time. No less than university presidents have been ousted over issues like whether to move toward the MOOC (to oversimplify the recent UVA controversy).  So whether it’s because you want to learn about computer science without paying tuition for it, or because you see applicants listing MOOC certifications on their resumes, keep an eye on the MOOC. It’s the next big thing.