The Rise Of The MOOC

Technology has slowly but surely changed nearly every facet of our lives to date. With specific regards to education, it has accomplished remarkable things. It has given children the ability to use computers in schools to aid with their work. It has enabled the use of projectors and more recently interactive boards in some schools; these again have further helped in improving student’s understanding of material in a graphical manner. However, until now, the environment has always been a tangible classroom. Students sit in a class with a teacher at the front who will teach. This style of instruction continues all the way through to university (with classrooms being replaced with lecture theatres), but the essence is still the same. MOOCs are completely revolutionising this paradigm. MOOCs are massive open online courses. They are essentially courses delivered solely on the web; they are interactive classroom forums.

Having defined what they are, we can now discuss how they came about. MOOCs are essentially the next stage of evolution in distance learning. Distance learning has been around in some form or other for centuries. Distance learning, just to be clear, is defined as providing some access to learning when the source of information and the learners are separated by time and distance, or both. In the early 18th century, some methods of this learning involved lecturers posting email via the letter box and this was the form of communication. This evolved slowly, with radio being the next big medium of dispersing information to the masses, followed by televised lectures. The next stage was the MOOC. These online interactive courses have proven extremely popular and ‘The New York Times’ dubbed 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC’. The major providers of these services started off in America. Stanford launched 3 of these MOOCs: Introduction to AI, Udacity and Coursera. Academics at Stanford were able to partner up with other universities in the states to deliver material on certain courses, fully online. MIT then followed up with their non-profit MOOC (MITx), to combat the commercialisation of this data medium. Asia followed this wave, launching their MOOC EduKart in 2011. Europe soon followed as well.

Now, for a little understanding of how these actually work. They target anyone who wishes to expand their education horizons and it makes higher degree level learning available to the masses. They are either free or substantially cheaper than a campus learning experience. The courses are setup and designed by leaders in the fields of the subjects taught. They are delivered via a combination of video lectures, problem sets and examinations. They are usually really well self-contained, requiring very little background experience. The very nice facet of MOOCs is their online internal forums where people can discuss problems and ask questions to their course provider (teacher).

Now just turning our attention to the cost and benefits of this medium. On the one hand, they offer education to a much broader spectrum of people. The costs are much less and there is no issue with regards to distance. Also, the lectures are electronic and therefore can be viewed whenever therefore there are no set times for classes; this enables people to work a job and learn part time in their comfort. On the other hand, they require a lot of willpower from the applicant to complete modules (completion rates can be as low as 10%). Also, the need for a computer and internet access may prevent it from being truly a global teaching tool.

So overall, these MOOCs seem to have a lot of potential to change the education platform. Now, a nice question for us to look at is, how can MOOCs change your ways of learning? These courses offered can be considered as virtual textbooks. The beauty with this is that one can continue with their usual activities (school, university, job etc) and supplement their learning with these courses offered in MOOCs, which range from pure mathematics to history of art. The idea of being able to approach knowledge in this much more heuristic fashion is something which I hope we can all relish. It allows one to broaden their horizons and develop a real love for learning in their own time.

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