MOOCs

I have to admit I hadn’t heard this term until I read a NY Times article on the phenomenon. I suppose that massive open online courses (MOOC) are the logical extension of online education. These courses consist of large numbers of participants scattered across the globe connected to one or more instructors engaged in an examination of some topic or field of study. For example, Stanford offered a MOOC on artificial intelligence that drew 160,000 students located in 190 countries. The 23,000 who completed the course received a certificate indicating their grade.

Even though course like this one have been offered without charge (and without credit), the next generation of MOOCs may come with a price tag. Udemy is one such start and is offering a mixture of free and paid courses.

These courses offer participants access to noted professors and immersion in a web of information and discussion with peers sharing an interest in the subject matter being addressed. While the courses may contain the normal trappings of an on-campus course – exams, lecture notes, reading assignments, they tend to morph into something much more free form that is a natural outgrowth of connections that crop up among participants. It is these connections that offer a very different take on higher education.

Are these course a natural reaction to the ever increasing costs of higher education? Will universities find themselves losing their best professors who come to see them as unnecessary middlemen in delivering knowledge to students? What does it mean for the billions of dollars of bricks and mortar facilities on these university campuses? As I accompanied my three children on college tours over the past decade, I couldn’t help noticing how libraries once the central feature of every campus had been relegated to secondary status behind student unions, sports and recreation complexes, and lifestyle dormitories.

To a great extent the very top tier of colleges and universities occupy a gatekeeper status of credentials for entry to becoming a member of the elites whether in business, government or academia. I suspect these institutions will withstand the competition offered by MOOCs, but will second and third tier schools be as fortunate?

Many have expressed concerns about the growing commercialization of higher education even on traditional campuses. Aren’t MOOCs the perfect expression of education in a mature capitalist economy where people vote with their feet (fingers?) and dollars. What bodies of knowledge nurtured assiduously over centuries will fall by the wayside?

I don’t want to sound like a Luddite because I generally believe the digital age has made the world a much better place and offers almost limitless possibilities for even more progress. But as someone who believes deeply in the importance of place, I am concerned about a world in which place becomes increasingly virtual rather than real.

 

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