Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are one of the newest and most controversial topics in American college education today. Offering college-level courses taught by professors from top-tier universities througout the US, MOOCs are free online enrollment courses offered to nearly unlimited number of students per course.
Earlier in the year, I had the opportunity to try a course from Coursera, one of the major providers of MOOCs. The class I took through Coursera is an excellent example of how MOOC programs work. The class was taught by Professor Duneier, a well-respected professor from Princeton Univeristy. It involved a series of lectures by the professor, a forum for questions and comments, reading assignments from open-source online documents, and auto-graded assignments. The New York Times has estimated the Professor Duneier’s online Introduction to Sociology has reached over 40,000 students . Specific technologies are used to determine to see what comments and questions are the most popular in the online forums, allowing the professor a chance to target lectures and responces to the topics that students are most interested in.
MOOC programs are in their infancy and face many challenges. Beyond the clear administrative difficulties of teaching, grading, and record keeping for that large a group of students, these free courses face much negative criticism. Speculation that the offering of free online courses with mass appeal to students both in the US and worldwide could irreperably harm smaller colleges and universities is a common concern. Enrollment in the thousands makes cheating a matter of course for these courses, which causes a significant concern for the future of these courses.
However, MOOCs also have a significant number of benefits. The most obvious, given that these free classes require nothing more than a computer and internet connection to access, is that MOOCs make college-level courses available to students who otherwise would have no access to the higher-education. MOOCs also provide students a valuable opportunity to connect with other enrolled students with similar interests. Furthermore, MOOCs allow students to continue learning, thinking, and absorbing information even when out of school. Whether students enroll in MOOCs before college, after college, during their professional careers, or in retirement, these courses allow individuals to gain access to a world of information, ideas, theories, and knowledge that was previously unobtainable. MOOCs world-wide audience allows for international discussion of various topics, creating an environment of constructive learning and cooperation that bridges countries and cultures.
While it is unlikely that MOOCs will replace traditional institutions or distance learning programs for degree seeking students in the near future, they have brough benefit to many people. MOOCs have, at this point, cornered the market for students wanting to expand their education horizons, learn a new subject, or simply connect with other academically-minded individuals without a significant time investment.