They say knowledge is power, which is probably the reason there is so much resistance to giving it away for free. Imagine if everyone had the ability to make their decisions based on good information and a solid thought process?
Actually, I don't understand why that would be so bad.
Most people cringe when they think back to high school. It's not because of the bad hair, terrible fashion, or frequent acne outbreaks (although those don't help either).
Nope, a major reason people look back on high school with scorn is that everybody inherently knows that you aren't there to learn anything. High school does little more to train you to salivate at the sound of a bell so you'll know when it's lunchtime in the factory you'll eventually work at.
Many people leave high school hungry for more information, particularly because they find they're completely unqualified for any type of job, or even to balance their own checkbooks.
College is an option for some, but college is expensive and growing more expensive every day. Also, to get into college, you have to compete with entitled individuals willing to pay millions of dollars to cheat on their entrance exams.
So, what options remain? How do you better yourself and at least establish an educational foundation from which you can start to make good decisions?
Well, the library is a good choice. However, randomly grabbing books from the massive collection that is housed at your local library isn't going to get you to enlightenment fast. For those out there who are looking for a bit more of a guided learning option, you could consider a MOOC?
What's a MOOC? No, it's not John Candy's character from 'Spaceballs,' you're thinking of Mog.
MOOC is an acronym for Massive Open Online Course, and it turns out it's part of a tradition of free education that's been going on for decades. Also, here's another secret, many US Universities offered free degrees within your parent's lifetime. it's true.
So, if you're curious about this fascinating educational option, please read on. This article contains everything you need to know about how a MOOC can be your stepping stone to a brighter future.
What Is a MOOC?
The fundamental question here is whether or not we believe society benefits more when knowledge is shared as often and as widely as possible, or if we believe knowledge should be hoarded and doled out for profit.
We live in the information age. At no point in human history has it been as possible as now to research information. If you have a leaky faucet in your home, you can jump on YouTube and find one of a dozen instructional videos to tell you how to fix it.
The ownership of knowledge is an interesting point to consider. Is it fair to say that the descendants of Isaac Newton should "own" the laws of motion? Should they get a dime whenever these laws are used to make some social achievement possible?
That seems absolutely ridiculous. It seems fair to say that the collective knowledge that the human race has accumulated over time belongs to the whole human race. In fact, the only way that knowledge has value is if it's shared and widely known.
People who dedicate their time to conveying this information obviously deserve to be compensated for their hours, but they have no right to charge for information they themselves didn't discover.
This philosophy is reflected on the internet where, for years, people have been producing instructional videos for free so that they might be paid only in advertising revenue.
A MOOC is an extension of that idea, but, for better or for worse, academia is involved.
Now, academia can be like government in that sometimes it does a good job, and sometimes it steps in and messes up an operation that's working just fine. Fortunately, human beings come in all shapes and sizes, and the typical structure academia adds to any situation is of benefit to some.
The easiest way to define a MOOC is a course that you can complete at your leisure by following a curriculum of reading or video lectures. The coursework is supplemented by chat room interaction with other students and evaluated through standardized testing.
MOOCs are a great option for professionals working in fields such as education to improve their certifications without taking time off work. Typically there is no fee, or if there is a fee, it is a small certification fee. This type of learning clearly has some pros and cons:
There is a clear advantage to achieving any professional certification at a low cost. Generally, a certification of any variety means an increase in pay, so a free MOOC is a way to improve your salary at no cost to you.
However, one concern is that MOOCs could incur a hidden cost in the form of an inflated certification fee that is used to establish that the student did, in fact, complete the program.
MOOCs are typically massively attended courses, sometimes having an enrollment in excess of 25,000 students. With course numbers that large, even a small certification fee of one hundred dollars can provide an enormous revenue to the university providing the program.
Although MOOCs tend to have large enrollment, the actual number of students who complete the program is much lower, falling to around 15%. The completion number improves if there is a small fee to complete the course.
Early forms of MOOCs involved students watching course lectures on videocassette (this was prior to the format being called a MOOC). Today, students may access lectures online and watch when and wherever they want.
In this manner, students can improve their education without having to leave the comfort of their own home. The lectures are reinforced by a varying degree of coursework.
You Can Choose the Pace
One of the problems with pursuing additional education is that life happens. During a typical academic course, you have to arrive at lectures at a set time for a set number of weeks. What happens if your car breaks down or you have a death in the family? All your coursework is lost.
With a MOOC you can navigate life issues and continue your education when unexpected events settle back down, and your normal routine is restored. This is a huge advantage over traditional courses, but it does lead to a higher rate of non-completion.
Limited to No Interaction With Teachers
Engaging in question-and-answer exchanges with teachers and students is one of the fundamental components of typical education. The interpersonal interaction helps to solidify the student's understanding of a topic.
Simply watching a video is an effective way of conveying information, but if the student is confused by the content, or misinterprets the lecture, then there aren't good controls worked into a MOOC to identify this miscomprehension.
That is not to say that miscomprehension does not take place in a standard classroom setting as well; it most certainly does. But the limited nature of how information is conveyed in a MOOC tends to suggest a greater potential for misunderstanding by the student.
Limited to No Interaction with Fellow Students
One of the great benefits of taking a standard class is the opportunity to interact with colleagues in your field of expertise. The opportunity to get to know other professionals offers a benefit beyond the topics of classroom learning.
Colleagues know of job opportunities and are often willing to act as references. It's often said, "It's not what you know; it's who you know." A standard classroom allows you to build a professional network that can greatly serve to expedite your long term career goals.
Substituting face to face time with real people in exchange for limited, semi-anonymous interaction on chat rooms is fundamentally detrimental to the network building component of any course.
Machine Graded Evaluations
It is unlikely that the evaluation component of a MOOC is going to involve crafting an essay (although it is the case in some programs). More likely, the student will be required to pass a standardized test prior to certification.
Standardized tests are problematic for some students. Furthermore, there is the potential for machine error where a corrupted test sheet, or improperly formatted sheet, provides a failing grade.
Although in a free class a failing grade may not be relevant as the student can simply register and take the course again, it can be a problem in a certification class, and may result in frustration particularly if limited interaction with teachers is available.
A final problem with MOOCs is that certifications acquired through such an educational platform may not have much value in the job market. A professional who switches jobs might find that the time he or she spent earning certifications through MOOC programs might not have external value.
In the case of a free MOOC, achieving the certification is only a sacrifice of time, but some of these courses do demand a huge time commitment from students. This time commitment can be difficult for a young professional juggling the responsibilities of job and family.
A Brief History of MOOCs
The concept of distance learning is not a new one, and has been proposed and refined with the introduction of every new technology for the last few hundred years.
A brief timeline of distance learning which evolves from correspondence courses to MOOCs is as follows:
- 1728-Weekly mailed lessons to teach shorthand published in the Boston Gazette
- 1840-Sir Isaac Pitman taught shorthand using postcards
- 1873-Society to encourage studies at home founded in 1873
- 1920s-1930s-Proposals to use film and radio for distance education
- 1948-Jon Wilkinson Taylor of University of Louisville used radio for distance education
- 1964-1968-Carnegie Foundation funded Wedemeyer's Articulated Instructional Media Project (AIM)
- 1994-Term 'Learning Object' coined by Wayne Hodgins
- 2001-MIT OpenCourseWare project puts MIT's entire course catalog online
- 2002-Open Educational Resources
- 2008-Term 'MOOC' coined by Dave Cormier
- 2012-Year of the MOOC
The more recent developments deserve some extra explanation.
Wayne Hodgins and 'Learning Object'
'Learning Object' is a term coined by Wayne Hodgins to discuss the reuse of standard educational materials. For anyone who has had to design a course curriculum, you find that a lot of material is repeated.
The concept of a 'Learning Object' is the idea that new courses can be built on the fundamental objects of old courses and transplanted over time. This is simply a concept to make it possible to streamline curriculum building.
Making specific 'Learning Objects' readily available and reusable is one of the fundamental concepts of a MOOC system of education.
MIT's OpenCourseWare Project
In 2001, MIT announced that it would be putting its entire course catalog online in 2002. MIT entered a partnership with Utah State University to come up with a plan to capitalize on online resources to use existing online communities to organize a peer support network.
In a sense, this is the first example of online open-source educational material that is moderated by an online community rather than an established authority. Obviously a concept this ambitious needed some refinement.
Open Educational Resources
The term Open Educational Resources (OER) was first used at UNESCO's 2002 open forum on educational courseware. The meeting consisted of a discussion on research and teaching materials that existed online for public use.
Anyone who has worked in education appreciates having access to free teaching materials. The more coursework a teacher can provide to his or her students, the better the chances of conveying a lesson.
In addition to discussing the proliferation of free material, they also established the five rules of permutable OER use:
- Retain-people who access the material have the right to copy it and store it
- Reuse-people who access the material can use it however they want
- Revise-people who access the material can change and adapt it
- Remix-people who access the material can combine it with other material
- Redistribute-people who access the material can share it along with their revisions or remixes
These rules represent a common sense declaration or manifesto that defines the fundamental concept of open source educational materials and the rights of educators.
The idea is to have a focus on conveying knowledge rather than create a concern over copyrights. It is also to allay any concerns educators have that they might get into legal trouble for using these free materials.
Term 'MOOC' Coined by Dave Cormier
Dave Cormier coined the term 'MOOC' in 2008 in response to a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge offered by the University of Prince Edward Island.
This course was attended by 2,200 online students who accessed course content through RSS feeds.
The Year of the MOOC
2012 was declared the year of the MOOC by the New York Times. The concept had evolved to the point where several external providers had begun to affiliate themselves with universities to offer MOOC courses.
Courses that interact with twenty thousand or more students represent a need for infrastructure that a typical university is not equipped to handle. To attend this need, MOOC providers became a new business model.
MOOC providers are equipped to handle the technological and logistical demands of large courses, while the Universities provide the actual coursework. Some of the larger MOOC providers are:
The question then becomes, if you are taking a course from Stanford that is operated by Coursera, are you receiving a Stanford level education or a Coursera level education. The fact that Coursera was founded by Stanford loses relevance when you learn Coursera does course platforms for other Universities as well.
The concept and the role of MOOC providers like Coursera, Udacity, and edX is where the waters become a bit muddied. Although the concept of the MOOC is to provide free educational materials to as many people as possible, there is a lot of money to be made when the course enrollment is so high.
Additionally, a course enrollment of twenty thousand students is going to incur some natural administration costs. Then there is the standard of education that is offered by the institution that is providing the course.
One significant question is whether the existence of a MOOC offered by Stanford has the effect of diluting the value of the Stanford degree that is earned by a traditional student? If that is the case, might MOOCs be detrimental to the long term financial well-being of the institution?
Also, MOOCs affiliated with respected universities find that they have to distinguish themselves from for-profit online universities such as the University of the Phoenix that is generally less respected.
Partially as a result of these concerns, several different forms of MOOCs have come into existence.
The Different MOOCs
A traditional course or certification run by a Professor that takes the form of a typical University class.
Might be offered concurrently with a standard class.
The most common kind of MOOC.
A collaborative forum composed of experts in a field. In a cMOOC, every participant is considered a teacher.
A form of MOOC where the class is held at a particular time. Similar to an xMOOC, but without the benefit of following a personal schedule.
Use of the MOOC concept either as an internal distributor of corporate procedure, or a subsidized use of external MOOCs for the purpose of certification and regulatory compliance.
Didn't life seem simpler at the beginning of this article when we were simply discussing the social benefits of widespread, free education? However, education, like all things, is a constant battle between doing what's right and doing what's profitable.
The idea of combining the internet with education is a no-brainer. However, the actual mechanism of how this will take place is constantly evolving. Every day new concepts for how the internet might be used to educate people are proposed and launched.
The concept of funding is always addressed and tweaked as well. From preschool learning resources to university education, to professional certification, to corporate learning, a MOOC exists for virtually every situation.
Here are examples of some of the most common MOOCs:
- Corporate MOOCs
The 'x' in xMOOC stands for 'extended' and the idea is that an xMOOC allows for an extended student body to participate in a University course.
xMOOCs represent the most common type of MOOC. These are generally created by a single professor. These are essentially an online version of a traditional university course.
The objective of an xMOOC is to complete a course or certification in a set amount of time. Because of the online nature of the xMOOC, interaction and feedback from the professor is limited.
The 'c' in cMOOC stands for 'connectivity' and the idea of cMOOC is to bring together groups of people who have already achieved a certain level of expertise in a given field.
Instead of a traditional course that is delivered by a professor, a cMOOC is more of an open forum for individuals engaged in group learning. This is a place for experts to share and discuss new ideas and developments in a given field.
In a cMOOC, every individual involved in the course is considered a teacher, whereas in an xMOOC there is the distinction between students and a single teacher.
SMOC stands for 'synchronous massive online course.' In structure, a SMOC is the same as an xMOOC. The main distinction is that in a SMOC the courses are broadcast live.
The idea of an SMOC eliminates many of the positive components of an xMOOC. Students must be able to attend lectures at a given time, and they still experience limited interaction with the teachers.
One positive, however, is that students who are participating in an SMOC course in the same geographic area can potentially watch the course lectures together. This enables students to recuperate some interaction between students even though they are taking a MOOC style course.
The potential for students to view lectures together is always possible with a MOOC, of course. However, the design of a SMOC encourages the behavior. Also, there is the potential for chat room interaction with the professor that restores a small amount of student/professor interaction.
MOOCs are often utilized by corporations for a variety of purposes. Corporate MOOCs could simply be an example of a training program that is used to get everyone within the corporation acclimated to a common procedure.
Also, corporations often subsidize the use of external MOOCs in order to have their employees quickly and cost-effectively certified for issues of regulatory compliance.
Education and the Future of MOOC
Distance learning has been going on for decades. Sometimes the purpose has been to offer a quick, efficient, and affordable means of conveying knowledge. Sometimes the purpose has been to fleece people out of their cash.
The question is, what category do MOOCs fit into?
There is a certain accepted authority to a standard University degree earned under the traditional method of a student attending small classes at an accredited university.
Correspondence courses have been offered for years, some utilizing letters, some utilizing radio and film, some utilizing video cassettes, and now some utilizing the internet.
It's indisputable that knowledge can be conveyed through technology like the internet. The bigger question is whether a potential employer will look at your resume, see your MOOC obtained certification, and be willing to accept it as a reasonable credential.
As a relatively new concept, MOOCs are generally available at minimal cost; however, whether or not universities will continue to be able to offer MOOC courses under this paradigm remains to be seen.
Perhaps in the course of a few decades, MOOCs will have supplanted the standard course room setting for how universities are structured. Like all forms of education, MOOCs will have their fans and detractors among both students and teachers.
If you're really concerned about the concept, just remember that academia tends to complicate things. For an uncomplicated example of how effective video learning can be, go try to build a house from random videos posted on YouTube.
It's amazing how clearly and concisely a topic can be explained when the speaker is not a professional teacher.