MOOCs’ Place in Education

The internet places a massive amount of information at our fingertips, and it can seem at times as if, with the right Google search, we can learn anything.  Until relatively recently, this freedom of knowledge was limited to what the curious web surfer was willing to teach themselves.  Information was out there for discovery, but there were few way to find instruction, and even fewer ways to have one’s work evaluated.  Frequently, the best one could hope for was to find a “how to” article written by some hopefully reputable source.  Recently however, the MOOC (massively open online course) threatens to make formal instruction available en masse to all those seeking it.

MOOCs are web courses accepting tens of thousands of students at any given time being taught by some of the most distinguished professors the world has to offer.  For those interested in free distribution of information, MOOCs represent a huge step forward.  Theoretically, anyone in their living room could receive the same instruction as a freshman at Harvard or Yale.  However, as noted in Douglas Belkin and Melissa Korn’s New York Times article “Web Courses Woo Professors”, many professors at less renowned intuitions fear the possible effects which MOOCs would have on their livelihoods.  If everyone can receive an Ivy League course experience for free, who would choose to attend their local university?  As of yet however, MOOCs suffer some serious limitations which keep local university enrolment stable for now.

A. J. Jacobs wrote about his MOOC  experience in an article entitled “Grading the MOOC University.”  He found that MOOCs lacked many of the core aspects which people seek in traditional college classes.  Most notably, there was almost no student to teacher interaction by which a student could get his questions answered.  It is not surprising that one on one time would be scare when the students outnumber the professor by thousands to one.  Additionally, assignments were limited to computer graded multiple choice tests and peer reviewed projects, both administered through the honor system.  While these limitations far from render MOOCs useless, they at least must be surmounted before the formal university system has anything real to fear.  It is more likely that MOOCs will supplement rather than supplant formal education as the concept progresses.

Image provided by Northeastern University Graduate School of Engineering.