A recent issue of the prestigious and widely read scientific journal Nature (subscription required for access to some articles)  has multiple thoughtful pieces on the role of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in higher education.

Listen to the Nature podcast Taking a Look at MOOCs, in which Nature reporter Ewen Callaway enrolls in Duke’s Medical Neuroscience Coursera course by Dr. Len White (starts at 14:22).

For more about Dr. White’s course, see:

or sign up and experience the course for yourself.

In the article Digital Learning: Look, then leap, Michael M. Crow of Arizona State University places MOOCs in the context of the changes in education provided by the advent of the internet.  He points out:

“But the art of learning has already changed completely, because for almost a decade students have had instant access to unlimited information from anywhere or anyone in the world. This has altered all assumptions about academic hierarchy, charismatic authority, pedagogical processes and the structure of the learning community.”

He distinguishes between an online course developed by faculty offered through online degree programs and MOOCs, and points out the irony of universities with exclusive admissions policies taking the lead in offering MOOCs. Finally, he hopes for a future in which MOOCs make education more accessible by lowering costs and enhancing education’s impact. Read the short article in Nature 499:275-277; 2013.

In the article Education: Online on-ramps MIT authors Hazel Sive and Sanjay Sarma begin by pointing out that the effect of  MOOCs on education is likely to be more nuanced than we can currently envision, and describe several ways they have seen MOOCs impacting education at MIT.  They expand their scope, addressing how MOOCs can affect research and scholarly activities, which they illustrate with specific examples. They are particularly positive about the impact of open online courses on interdisciplinary research. Read the short article in Nature 499:277-278; 2013.

Both articles discuss the increased opportunities for more active student engagement in the classroom made possible when a MOOC delivers the the basic content.  Duke’s Mohamed Noor wrote about his experience teaching a face to face course with his MOOC.

M. Mitchell Waldrop reports  in Education online: The virtual lab on the progress in bringing practical skills usually taught in a laboratory to online learning. Students may use virtual instruments, remote controlled instruments, video game environments, simulations and their own smartphones to gather and analyze data. Nature 499:268-270; 2013.

Sarah Kellogg writes in Online Learning: How to make a MOOC that designing a MOOC allows for experimentation, gives teachers a chance to develop fresh methods,  attracts new student-audiences and encourages discussions. This article recommends a process for creating a MOOC and contrasts the process of preparing for video lectures with face to face lectures. Nature 499:369-371: 2013.  Read more about CIT’s process in Lessons Learned: Revising Course Design Recommendations for Faculty Teaching MOOCs.

Read more about Duke’s Coursera efforts
Sign up for a Duke Coursera course
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Update: Scientific American’s special report on Learning in the Digital Age includes many thoughtful news and opinion pieces in addition to links to the Nature articles.

Andrea Novicki

Andrea helps faculty use technology effectively and efficiently in their teaching. She works primarily with scientists, using her biology background, love of science and teaching experience. Her current enthusiasms include online science education, active learning (especially team-based learning) and assessment.

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