MOOCs: What role do they have in higher education?

After working in the field of Instructional Technology for almost twenty years, I’ve seen many technologies that might impact higher education come and go.  In the initial stages, universities often experiment with the latest gadgets or Internet services without thinking too much about the concrete, real-world applications the technologies might have.

MOOCs – Massive Online Open Courses – are a new model for online courses that have quickly gained interest and support among universities in recent months.  We still find ourselves at the experimental stage, but it’s not too early to think about what kind of long-term impact MOOCs might have in higher education.

Some see MOOCs up-ending the whole model of higher education, allowing students to complete full courses of study in a non-traditional format, particularly with international students, which have made up a large part of the student body in early MOOC courses.  Others see MOOCs playing a much smaller role, with the MOOC system of “badges” or certificates for course completion integrated into programs higher education institutions already offer.

I am much more of a pragmatist when it comes to any technology – often, the promises of major change resulting from something new wind up being more subtle and nuanced.  In the case of MOOCs, it is difficult to imagine that the non-classroom aspects of the undergraduate experience can be easily replaced by a computer screen.

What makes a MOOC unique and, in the short term, what role could they play in the core educational mission of universities?

Features of a MOOC

There’s nothing particularly new about MOOCs.  Most universities have offered online courses for many years and the basic technologies involved – video lectures, discussion forums, tests, and the like – are the same we have used with on-campus and distance students.  The only difference is the scale.

By their very nature – large numbers of students, no direct faculty interaction with individual students, a “pre-programmed” course of study and assessments – MOOCs would appear to have what some have called limitations when compared with a traditional face to face course or smaller online credit course with high faculty involvement.  However, these aren’t limitations as much as features that make MOOCs unique.

MOOCs are built on efficiency of scale, giving access to the teaching of a world class professor to thousands of students at once.  The lectures, assessments and activities for a course – especially an online course – and the expertise of the professor behind the content isn’t cheap and, in many cases, is unique to a particular university.  A MOOC throws open the door of the professor’s classroom, allowing him to teach more than just a few dozen students at a time.

Because of the scale, “hands on” involvement by the faculty member is limited.  This shifts the responsibility for learning the material squarely on the shoulders of the individual student and their motivations to learn.  It also shifts conversation and dialogue about the content to a more diverse student population that could be worldwide – a community of learners.

MOOC courses aren’t fixed into traditional term and semester models of the university, so they can start any time and can be of any length.  That makes the MOOC compelling for short-term courses that are highly focused on a topic or a series of courses that might build towards a deeper understanding in a knowledge area.

Finally, MOOCs aren’t bound by traditional university credentialing – they can be offered with or without a certificate or “badge” indicating that a student has completed the course.  The credential can be separate from the class itself.

These features that make MOOCs unique – scale, learning communities, scheduling and credentialing flexibility – says that these types of online courses can solve certain problems in higher education that take advantage of the format, rather than trying to fit the MOOC into the more traditional university credit course box.

The Casual Course

The most obvious use for a free open course is promoting the university itself, giving the public an idea of the current state of inquiry and research in a particular field.  A MOOC, when offered for free or a minimal cost, can act as a “teaser” to let prospective students and parents see the type of teaching that goes on at a university and to reach out to alumni that might want to hear new ideas from a favorite professor or a topic they are following closely.  The format of the MOOC lets students experience lectures from the professor, go through computer graded tests or peer assessed essays or other work, and engage in discussion forums with others interested in the topic.  Already, many students sign up for a MOOC course and just listen to the lectures and engage in the forums, taking a more casual approach to taking an online course.

With these types of courses to promote the university’s work, the subject matter and syllabus used in a campus course might not be appropriate.  The intended audience isn’t necessarily interested in a credit or certificate for taking the course and a MOOC isn’t bound by the length of a semester or term or university departmental goals that dictate the material to be covered and the learning goals for the students.

What might work here are courses designed specifically for this more casual MOOC audience.  A professor who is an expert in his field might put together a MOOC experience that’s intended to explain current research and problems in his subject – topics that might be of interest because of larger debates in the media and culture about ongoing national or international issues.  A MOOC might look at current issues with climate change and other scientific developments, human rights, politics, or emerging trends in culture, literature or society.

With less of a focus on assessments as measures of learning goals, peer graded essays and forums could be used as a way to foster discussion, debate and engagement among the students in a casual MOOC course.

On the surface, there’s a public relations value to the casual MOOC course, positioning universities with world class faculty to explain and give background on important issues beyond the campus-based public forums universities currently offer.  But the MOOC casual course could also provide much needed revenue to many universities to offset the rising costs of their primary undergraduate programs.

Supplementing Secondary Education

A problem that many students face is how to have access at their high school to quality instruction that can lead to college credit for Advanced Placement courses or obtaining the right instruction that would prepare them for work at the university.  MOOCs can be a way for universities to offer high quality, self paced courses to fill these needs at a minimal cost to students.  While the MOOC model isn’t ideal for high-stakes, for credit testing or individual instructor help, a MOOC aimed at high school students could be supplemented by teachers in the school that provide encouragement and coaching as they go through the experience.  The “credit” for taking the course would be from tests administered by universities when the students apply to the college.

Designing a course for a high school audience would require assembling material that fits certain standards that are widely accepted for Advanced Placement or college prepatory courses.  Since MOOCs aren’t bound by the academic calendar, a semester or year of material could be broken into smaller units of a few weeks that students can take during summer breaks or other times that fit better with their overall schedule.

MOOCs have a potential here for not only helping incoming college students succeed, but giving a preview of a particular university’s teaching style to potential applicants.  More importantly, it could help high school teachers shift their time to core courses at their school and give them the opportunity to work with students as mentors and coaches in new, innovative ways.

Professional Development

Some have speculated that MOOCs would help give individuals in the job market a boost – someone taking a course and receiving a certificate from a course taught by a world-class professor might have an edge when looking for a job.  I’m not entirely convinced this would be the case – some type of a permanent standardized record of course contents and official credentials for courses among different MOOC platforms would be needed for a MOOC to carry more weight with potential employers.

But MOOCs would seem to have a logical role for professional development in the workplace, especially when teams in a workplace take a course together.  The learning by the student and the benefit to the employer would come with engagement with colleagues in the workplace taking the same course and other online students involved in the same course experience.  The goals of the MOOC are transformed from simple attainment of skills or knowledge to applying the insights and research of experts in your own workplace.

Again, an “off the shelf” course taught at a university might not be appropriate for a shorter MOOC experience aimed at working adults dealing with particular types of issues in their workplace.  Designing a short-form course looking at a more focused area, free of departmental or programmatic goals, might be a refreshing break from the typical university teaching experience for most faculty and allow for more in-depth exploration than a conference presentation or short seminar.

What’s Next?

Duke’s MOOC experiment with Coursera is still in development, with the first courses going live in a few weeks.  The university has creative, passionate faculty teaching Coursera courses in a wide range of subjects of varying lengths and the CIT and Duke administrators will be looking at feedback from the students and data on how students use the courses in future planning.

In this little thought experiment, I’ve only highlighted a few possible paths that MOOCs might take in the future.  Duke’s experiment with Coursera will likely highlight even more ways this new online course model can be used.

The world of MOOCs is moving quickly – soon, all of us will be moving from experiments to applying what we’ve learned to problems in higher ed.  In my own investigations of MOOCs over the past few months, I’m convinced that the areas we need to address aren’t with technology or even basic pedagogy, but in matching the MOOC model to the most pressing needs that universities need to address for students and creating the institutional momentum to create the institutional partnerships to solve those problems.

What problems do you think MOOCs can solve?



Author: Randy Riddle

Randy A. Riddle consults with faculty in the Humanities and Social Sciences on integrating technology into teaching. He has been a CIT consultant since 2000. His professional interests include e-learning, social networking, online productivity tools, video and multimedia, and visualization. Randy's current work includes management of the CIT's Faculty Fellows program, consulting on Coursera course design and exploring areas such as e-textbook authoring. His other interests outside of work include restoration of vintage recording formats and broadcasting and film history. He volunteers for the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and maintains an ongoing blog on radio history research.