By Dr. Patricia Campbell
Dean, Graduate Studies at American Public University
A great deal of hype surrounds the advent of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Accompanying this hype is strong debate about what MOOCs mean for higher education.
Some proponents suggest that MOOCs can do everything from democratizing higher education to solving long intractable problems by bringing great minds together around specific problems/issues. In contrast, some critics worry that MOOCs will make teachers unnecessary while others argue that they provide an inferior educational experience, and thus may erode the value of the college degree. Still others are cautiously optimistic that MOOCs can provide an alternative learning experience–one that is significantly different from traditional higher education and may therefore better engage nontraditional students not seeking a degree.
While MOOCs may not be for every student nor appropriate for every course or discipline, some argue that MOOCs can provide access to scholars, information, and experiences not available in other formats or traditionally available only to a select few.
As the debate rages on, one point of confusion has emerged that requires addressing–the conflation of MOOCs with online education. While there is some overlap, i.e. the method of instructional delivery, some key differences remain–at least for now. In contrast with MOOCs, online education has existed for more than 20 years, evolving in response to pedagogical research designed to enhance teaching and learning in the online environment. Improvements in technology have also enhanced online educational experiences.
Institutions experienced in teaching online courses have spent a great deal of time and resources to improve the online educational experience and ensure that students achieve the desired learning outcomes. Traditional online “classrooms” typically have 25-30 students with one professor. Daily interaction is common, and extensive faculty and peer engagement is expected. As such, there are no passive learners in the online environment. Professors are expected to provide extensive individualized feedback to all students and each student is expected to be fully engaged.
MOOCs, on the other hand, are fairly new. A MOOC takes course content and delivers it online to a much larger, virtually unlimited, number of students. There may be a faculty member who has developed or helped develop the content, recorded the lectures, and/or designed the assessments. However, because of the size of the MOOC, the professor is not engaged with every student. Students engage with one another and perhaps with the discussion moderator but typically not directly with the instructor or moderators. Assessments are few, and the professor is not likely to provide any individualized feedback to the student.
MOOCs were designed to share ideas and knowledge broadly, but not as classrooms where learning outcomes are measured. Because of some of these limitations, MOOCs are typically not for academic credit. However, this is changing. As MOOCs develop, some institutions are experimenting with allowing academic credit for a MOOC course provided the course is sufficiently rigorous and meets with learning outcomes consistent with those of the university and/or third parties like the American Council on Education. New assessment criteria are being developed that can better measure the degree to which a participant/student has met the stated learning outcomes.
One positive development has been the acceptance of online instruction as a viable and even, in some cases, a preferred method of delivery. This is a result of several factors including big- name universities (MIT, Harvard, Stanford) entering into the MOOC frenzy thereby granting a greater degree of legitimacy to online education; states such as California employing MOOCs to help address budget cuts that have reduced the number of courses at colleges and universities, during a time of increased student demand ; and the recognition that an increased number of students need remedial instruction; and private companies emerging as MOOC providers.
MOOCs are providing universities with interesting ways to experiment with instructional delivery. For example, they can provide alternative ways for students to access information and skills, and engage those not typically involved in the academy to “sign in” and enhance their learning. They also require active and creative instructors who are not afraid to depart from the “sage on the stage” model to become the “guide on the side.”
As technology has evolved, so have MOOCs, from a peer- based, learning- focused experience to a “blended MOOC” where “flipping the classroom” is the focus. As MOOCs continue to evolve, the line between online education and MOOCs will further blur.
About the Author:
Dr. Campbell has numerous publications in academic journals including Journal of Political Science Education, International Feminist Journal of Politics, African Studies Quarterly, Politics and Policy; and Africa Today. Her co-authored textbook on Global Studies was published in 2010 (Wiley-Blackwell). She has been active serving on various committees of the American Political Science Association (APSA), most recently she was elected to the APSA’s Committee on Teaching and Learning.