How MOOCs are Re-Shaping Higher Education

By: Raj-Kabir Birk

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs as they’re more commonly known, are online courses provided by higher education institutions that are free and available to everyone, regardless of prior education. The course is conducted entirely online, with readings, lectures, and assessments provided. Upon completion of the course, the student receives a certificate of participation from the course tutor.

MOOCs first emerged in 2008, when the University of Manitoba course Connectivism and Connective Knowledge was distributed online with a free non-credit option. 2012 was dubbed the ‘year of the MOOCs’, which was when the three largest MOOC platforms were founded. This includes Coursera, established by Stanford computer-science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, EdX, founded by Harvard professor Anant Agarwal, and Udacity, founded by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. Although the courses offered by MOOC providers are emphasize on technical, science-based courses, the humanities and social sciences are well represented.

Providing free education to everyone with access, MOOCs have quickly grown in popularity around the world, and will continue to grow. The international reach of MOOC’s furthers its potential, with 9% of EdX students coming from Africa and 12% from India[1]. In areas where large institutions aren’t feasible, MOOCs provide the possibility of higher education.

The rapid growth of MOOCs show no signs of slowing down. By 2014, enrolment in MOOCs will be up 100% compared to 2012 to over 10 million courses[2]. However, any debilitating impact on higher education institutions may not be noticeable unless MOOCs become credentialed. Anant Agarwal, President and founder of EdX, feels that in the long-term, MOOCs won’t be a threat, but an aid to teachers.

“I think online learning will augment teachers, by giving them a new tool,” he told The Guardian. “What tools have we given teachers since the textbook? I think the only example is in 1862 – a piece of chalk. I really view online courses as a new-age textbook, as a tool we can give teachers.”[3]

Prestigious institutions such as Berkeley, Columbia University, and University of Toronto have already began offering MOOC’s[4], although Oxford and Cambridge remain reticent to join the growing list of British schools involved in the MOOC venture FutureLearn.

Despite partnerships with numerous institutions, there has also been robust disapproval of MOOCs from the academic community. The Philosophy Department at San Jose State University voiced their concerns in an open letter[5] to Harvard professor Michael Sandel when they were asked to pilot his course on Justice for the MOOCs provider EdX. They signaled the need to assess the potential negative impact of MOOCs on higher education. Specifically, they highlighted the lack of interaction between the instructor and student, intimating that the lecture was only one part of the educational process, and that discussion and interaction is key to learning and engaging in critical thinking. The concern of the homogenizing effects of MOOC’s also came to the fore, whereby distributing and teaching one course to a broad audience leads to a mass-standardization of course content, as opposed to nuanced views and various modes of thought that current institutions provide.

With the advent of MOOCs, there is also the growing possibility of blended courses, whereby students watch pre-recorded lectures on their own time and go to a scheduled class to discuss the material with the lecturer and fellow students.

However, the rising costs of tertiary education means MOOCs could prove to have a major impact. Student loan debt in the US has gone from over $200 billion in 2003 to almost $1 trillion in 2012, and Canadian tuition and compulsory fees for undergraduates has risen 6.2% annually since 1990[6]. This increase, coupled with decreasing salaries for recent graduates, undermines the value of a traditional tertiary education.

Whether MOOC’s will fundamentally alter the way universities operate is unknown, but their presence will undoubtedly grow stronger, and raise important questions concerning the state of higher education.

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Raj-Kabir Birk is currently enrolled at the University of Toronto at Mississauga in the Professional Writing and Communication Program. His interests primarily lay in mass media, technology, and their relationship with consumers and audiences. After graduation, Raj-Kabir will be pursuing postgraduate studies in media studies. 

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