Are You Ready for MOOCs?

Are you ready for MOOCs? A MOOC is a massive open online course. That's a course where the participants and materials are distributed across the web. To make this work, the course also has to be "open" and have large numbers of participants.

How large? Thousands. Yes, you thought that 101 course you took as a freshman that had 300 kids in a lecture hall was large and impersonal - or perhaps you liked the anonymity that came from large numbers. A MOOC connects "distributed" instructors and learners across a common topic or field

This is a recent form of online course development and many of the standard formats and resources of online courses - for example, the Learning Management System (LMS) - don't really work.

Google artificial-intelligence guru Sebastian Thrun was in the news earlier this year because he left Stanford University to start a company based on the A.I. course he made freely available last fall. With that course, tens of thousands of students were taking it on the web. Now, two of his old Stanford colleagues who were also trying out MOOCs have decided to bring their own free online courses into a for-profit venture.

A lot the attention comes from the fact that these are "elite" schools experimenting with this format. The company they have started is Coursera which says it wants to make "the best education in the world freely available to any person who seeks it."

MOOCs are founded on the theory of connectivism and an open pedagogy based on networked learning. At the start, these courses were typically free of fees to participate. This new venture takes it in a commercial direction. Those fees may be a kind of tuition if the participant wants some certification or accreditation after successful completion. Of course, the design of these courses is often without specific requirements (as in papers or tests or materials that would need to be graded) although they usually have the familiar weekly topics to focus discussion.

In some ways, they remind me of early (and not so great) online courses with minimal structure, weekly presentations/lectures, discussion questions, and suggested activities and other resources. The materials in these new MOOCs may in fact be very high quality. But pedagogically, much of the course motion is expected to come from the participants and so the course allows curriculum and structure to emerge from the exchange between participants. Discussions and participants reflecting on the concepts amongst themselves and also sharing resources using any number of social media tools are seen as part of the learning process in MOOCs.

By leaving their elite university, are these professors and the students who take these courses further pushing the idea of a University 2.0.?  Is the degree from the elite university becoming less valued?

Right now, Coursera has eight courses, centering on computer science with some math, economics and linguistics. (5 taught by Stanford profs, 2 by profs at the UC-Berkeley and 1 by a University of Michigan professor) These are all listed as free now and none give you any type of credit from any source. Learn for the sake of learning. What a concept.'s description starts out by saying: "We see political uprisings, market crashes, and a never ending array of social trends. How do we make sense of it? Models. Evidence shows that people who think with models consistently outperform those who don't. And, moreover people who think with lots of models outperform people who use only one."

The UC-Berkley course is Software as a Service and one from Stanford is on Game Theory

I'm not much interested in Coursera's business model, and more interested in the impact this may have later on online learning, pedagogy and the changing university. In fact, I was torn about what category on this blog this post should be tagged as - since it falls into my Open Everything, Pedagogy, eLearning, Trends, Social Web - almost any category might come into play.

Game changer? Maybe. With more than 335,000 people already registered for the five Stanford-provided courses in the Coursera catalog, who knows what may come of this.


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