The MOOC monsoon

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote about what he called “the campus tsunami” earlier this year — the trend of elite universities embracing online education and offering free online courses. A few months later, that tsunami is increasingly becoming a “MOOC monsoon.”

Screenshot of Time U.S. article

MOOC MANIA: We need to sort through the noise

Media have been abuzz over MOOCs lately. These massive open online courses are quickly gaining traction in the education community, and many opinions are swirling around the use and effectiveness of MOOCs in educating students.

One of the news articles that piqued my interest was this piece from Time writer Kayla Webley. She reports on the hype around MOOCs, and how several Time reporters, including herself, are enrolled in MOOCs “to see what all the fuss is about.”

I, too, am taking a MOOC, and I hope to share details on my experience after I’ve gotten a little further along. So far, however, I think MOOCs take a very limited approach to online learning. I discussed this in the comment I left on Kayla’s article.

It’s certainly encouraging that more universities are embracing the idea of providing online access to higher education opportunities. And, MOOCs are offering students access to lectures and presentations from professors at some of the nation’s most well-respected universities — something to which the vast majority of students would never have access.

However, MOOCs are barely scratching the surface of what’s possible in a well-conceived and delivered online learning environment. They rely almost exclusively on taped lectures and provide no formal means for students to engage in dialogue with professors or others taking the courses. They include no academic support services.

Yet, most students require — and seek — high interaction with their instructors and peers to more fully understand and apply the content presented. They benefit from active learning models that are rich with multi-media content and opportunities to immediately apply what they’re learning. They rely on academic support services, collegial interaction, and personalized attention.

MOOCs do not provide these benefits. As a result, it appears to me that MOOCs will best serve people who are already well-educated, deeply interested in the subject matter at hand, or already in the field that’s being studied.

We believe it is critical that we improve higher education options by relying on active learning models, enhancing student and faculty engagement, providing continuous assessment, and using data to evaluate the effectiveness of what we are doing. We also believe that these learning environments, experiences, and contexts need to be flexible, accessible, and beautiful.

While we are glad to see that institutions like Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Duke have come to realize the crucial need for online education, we encourage these institutions to look to others who have been developing, running, and managing online learning programs for years now — because it’s what our students need.

What are your thoughts on MOOCs? What role are they playing in education, and what role should they play?

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