MOOCs–The End of Higher Education As We Know It?

#jiscwebinar What Is A MOOC? @dkernohan @mwell...

#jiscwebinar What Is A MOOC? @dkernohan @mweller @jonathan_worth @loumcgill @daveowhite [visual notes] (Photo credit: giulia.forsythe)

By Lillian Williams

As the year winds down, we know that MOOCs –those popular massive open online courses–have grabbed the spotlight on the digital education stage.

MOOCs are large-scale, online courses that are open to anyone with an Internet connection. Topics range all the way from music and sociology, to business and computer science.

Most MOOCs are free, though their business models vary. Some are supported by foundation grants and university funding, while others attract venture capital.

The New York Times  headlined 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.”  These massive, open online courses (tens of thousands of students in an individual class) have captured the attention of foundations, course designers, researchers, and students worldwide.

The Daily Herald reports that even Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) is studying poetry for the first time–in a MOOC.

You ask: Who teaches these free courses?  Initially, mostly subject experts from elite universities such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford and Berkeley. But that’s changing fast.

For example, in June the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation  awarded MIT a grant to develop a MOOC. But this month the foundation awarded grants to an array of other types of schools, with the aim of developing remedial as well as introductory-level MOOCs.

Receiving this latest round of grants were Cuyahoga Community College and Wake Technical Community College, along with seven other schools. The goal?  To make content available to a wider range of learners. Here’s how the Gates foundation explained it:

  • “Presently, MOOC content is aimed at upper division content and, for the most part, learners with more advanced academic proficiency. The only way to understand the potential impact and benefit of MOOCs for low-income young adults is to make sure they can access and utilize the courses;
  • Better understand different “use cases” for MOOCs, including how they might be integrated into classroom practice in order to support completion and lower costs…”


In another significant step, research starts soon to determine whether selected MOOC coursework should be eligible for college transfer credits, with the approval of a major higher education association (more about this later.)

Also, the University of Miami this month launched the first MOOC targeted at high school students . This three-week class prepares students for the SAT biology test. Importantly, it’s open to students around the world, free of charge.

On the college and adult education front, millions of people worldwide continue to enroll in these massive online courses. A Stanford University MOOC, Introduction to Artificial Intelligenceattracted more than 160,000 students from 209 countries last fall. No admissions criteria. No tuition. And, of note, no college credit.

But with such freedom, comes responsibility and challenge. Huge numbers of students initially show interest, and then drop out of these large online courses (research is underway about this point). Yet reports show other students take multiple MOOC courses and express gratitude for top quality content.

Researchers like Daphne Koller, co-founder of the MOOC platform, Coursera, seek ways to increase retention. Koller is testing methods to motivate students to complete their coursework.

During an interview at the University of Pennsylvania Koller elaborated: “We’re now running a test where students are sent encouraging e-mails once a week saying, ‘You did so well on the last couple of assignments, and the next one is due tomorrow. Don’t you think it would be good if you log in and try to complete the next one? You don’t want to break your winning streak.’ We are trying to test whether that actually increases student engagement.”

Among the big MOOC players are Coursera (with more than 1.7 million students worldwide); edX (founded by Harvard and MIT), and Udacity (a model that offers certificates).

And, the number of MOOCs keeps growing. Coursera, started by Koller and fellow Stanford computer science professor, Andrew Ng , is the largest. Launched just eight months ago, today Coursera represents 33 universities and offers 200 courses in subjects ranging from the natural sciences to the humanities.


Here’s the deal: MOOCs–still very much in the experimental stage–are the subject of intense debate. How should learning be assessed? What teaching techniques work best? How will these free courses affect the traditional college model?

And here’s another issue: Should higher education institutions accept transfer credits from MOOCs?

Concerning the transfer credit question, the American Council on Education (ACE) announced recently that it will partner with Coursera to evaluate MOOC courses for transfer credit equivalencies. The involvement of ACE, a high-profile education association, was cheered by MOOC backers.

“It’s exciting to consider the possibilities that will come from allowing our students to receive transferable college credit toward a degree,” said Ng, the Coursera co-founder, about the transfer credit move . “We created Coursera to help students overcome major barriers to traditional education access, and providing credit-bearing college courses is a huge milestone toward that goal.”

Academic researchers such as William Bowen, former president of Princeton, agreed : “With the additional benefits of ACE credit recommendations for Coursera courses, students will have an unprecedented opportunity to obtain recognized credentials for their work. This could significantly reduce the costs of higher education for millions of students.”


Higher education administrators across the country follow these developments closely. Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University in Boston, became the latest to offer a public assessment. Aoun wrote that the MOOC movement spells “the end of higher education as we know it.”  How?

Aoun makes the point that teaching, learning, and credentialing are separated–decoupled–under the MOOC model. College campuses no longer would exclusively house those core functions.  Read Aoun’s entire article here.

The jury is still out, but this much we know: MOOCs broaden access to education, and expand the definition of gatekeeper.

A shift, indeed.

It’s your turn.  What do you think about these developments on the MOOC front? Leave your comments below.

This entry was posted in digital education, e-learning courses, elearning courses, free elearning courses, MOOC, online courses, online learning, online teaching and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to MOOCs–The End of Higher Education As We Know It?

  1. Pingback: MOOCs–The End of Higher Education As We Know It? | E-Learning (A Digital Education Forum)

  2. Pingback: Academics on MOOCs—Where is This Movement Headed? | E-Learning (A Digital Education Forum)

  3. Pingback: I’m Taking a MOOC This Summer! Are you? | E-Learning (A Digital Education Forum)

  4. Pingback: Howard University Ramps Up Online Learning Programs | E-Learning (A Digital Education Forum)

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