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How Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Work

MOOCs and the Future of Learning

In 2013, five MOOCs won credit recommendations from the American Council on Education, the same organization that advises colleges on how to deal with high school AP credits. Colleges don't have to accept those MOOCs for credit, but now it's easier for them to do so if they want to. The MOOC platform Coursera is exploring ways to offer in-person, proctored add-ons for students who want to earn verified certificates of completion, similar to the way NC State's ASIC design course handles crediting [source: Young].

The trend toward MOOC legitimacy in higher education raises questions about where that education is headed. Supporters believe the format could usher in an era of affordable, high-quality education for everyone (with Internet access) who wants one, opening doors to college and career advancement for those who can't afford to drop a hundred grand or so on the four-year residential model [source: Masterson, Marques].


Chris Brinton sees teacher benefits, too. "It satiates my appetite for teaching," says the Princeton instructor, "while allowing me to face an audience of unprecedented size and widespread demographics."

Yet most in the higher-education field, including Brinton, agree that the best learning models incorporate significant teacher-student contact, and colleges simply can't provide the number of instructors necessary for that kind of contact in a MOOC class of 100,000 [source: Caplan].

Writing assignments, too, fit poorly into the current model. Despite a controversial edX-developed program that grades essays using AI and horrifies English teachers everywhere, they're only very rarely assigned, so it's unclear how writing ability will fare in a MOOC revolution [sources: Caplan, Marques, Knight].

And then, there is the survival of academia itself: Will universities dump their science departments, and the research that goes with them, in favor of the lower-cost MOOC model, sending students online for intro physics rather than paying to seat thousands of students in lecture halls with live professors? Or maybe schools will drop the zero-cost component of the format in favor of maintaining their physics departments. Coursera already plans for its possible certificate program to be fee-based [source: Young].

Christopher Brinton, for one, is optimistic. "It will take us many more years of trial and improvement before we get MOOCs right. But as substantial as the challenges are, [even greater] are the opportunities MOOCs present to redefine the boundaries of education for the future."

So, we wait and see. In the meantime, you or I or my 3-year-old can take Princeton's Networks Illustrated, Stanford's Artificial Intelligence, and Harvard's Intro Neuroscience because they sound kinda cool.

Author's Note: How Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Work

About midway through writing about Massive Open Online Courses, I heard a story on NPR about a Google pursuit to bring wireless Internet to the most remote corners of the globe via helium balloons. In this context, MOOC could be life-changing education format. People in rural and/or poverty-stricken regions who don't currently have access to the Internet, let alone higher education, let alone higher education through the world's most prestigious universities, may suddenly have the chance to obtain all three. It all depends, I suppose, on how those helium balloons perform in testing, which is already underway in 2013.

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  • Amara. "Udacity Launches Student-Powered Effort to Subtitle 5,000+ Educational Videos." (June 24, 2013)
  • Brinton, Christopher, MSEE. Ph.D. candidate, Department of Electrical Engineering, Princeton University. E-mail interview. June 21, 2013.
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