Mastering MOOCs

Higher Education Innovation Preparation

MOOCsThree or so years ago when MOOCs (massive open online classes) hit the headlines in a big way, there were hopes that they would quickly revolutionize higher education, making it both more affordable and easier to access. In this new educational paradigm, anyone—from someone in a remote village to a college dropout in the U.S.—would be able to take courses from the top professors at top universities.

It turns out that hasn’t exactly been the case. According to an article by Jeffrey J. Selingo, author of MOOC U: Who Is Getting the Most Out of Online Education and Why,” the typical MOOC student is a college-educated American male who is employed full time. And chances are good that he didn’t pass the course he took because the majority of students fail. One of the reasons for this was exactly one of the program’s major selling points: top professors from top universities. The challenge is the classes being offered are college courses with high bars aimed at students who had the necessary preparation. And the teachers were recognizable names, not necessarily the best candidates for an online environment. In fact the best teacher for a course might be someone at a community college.

When evaluated using the measurements that higher education is usually judged by, MOOCs don’t measure up to their original ideal. But that doesn’t mean the idea is a failure. What MOOCs are doing is providing a block of education on specific topics that can be absorbed at the student’s individual pace. Mr. Selingo calls it “just-in-time education.” For example, an entrepreneur who needs to learn more about the nuts and bolts of building a business from a startup can sign up for an online course at a Business School and “attend” as many or as few lectures as he or she needs. Since the course is comprised of video lectures, the lessons can be on-demand: perfect for a busy self-starter.

This is what Mr. Selingo calls “the success story for massive open online courses as they graduate from the hype cycle’s ‘trough of disillusionment’ into the ‘slope of enlightenment,’ on their way to the ‘plateau of productivity.’” In other words, MOOCs are a disruptive innovation that will adapt to a wider market and higher education will be changed.

Take Away: MOOCs may not have lived up to their original hype, but that doesn’t mean they are a failure. As they find their place, on-demand learning will change higher education in ways we can’t even imagine yet.

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