Are you ready for the MOOCs?

edx is the platform chosen by McGill

Academic courses being offered online are not new. In the early 2000s it was already possible to find videos of full courses online from top universities. Over time, the offer grew and the number of channels too. From decentralized repositories, we had iTunes U, YouTube EDU and others. But a recent phenomenon is taking shape under the name of MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses.

Recently McGill has partnered with edx to start offering MOOCs in 2014. The two other major platforms today are coursera and udacity. As a member of my faculty Teaching and Learning Committee, yesterday I attended a discussion about the topic and I was amazed about how little we know about it.

Earlier this year I enrolled in a MOOC from coursera. It was a 4-weeks long course on data analysis with R. Since I did not want to take yet another stats class and I wanted to have some basic knowledge of R – and I also wanted to experience MOOCs instead of just reading about them – I told myself 4 weeks (on a 5h/week workload) wasn’t such a great investment after all. People have been writing all kinds of definitions about MOOCs, but for me the main difference of this course I took and all others I had previously followed on iTunes U and YouTube EDU is quite interesting. While before we were simply able to “eavesdrop” on a course offered to others (the people physically in the class), this time I am the main audience (together with 1,000s of others). While the other courses I could take at my own pace – and in many cases that could be very long given other priorities – in a MOOC you need to follow the class pace, but not exactly like a regular course. You have weekly deadlines and you can fit your activities for that particular week anytime. So it appears that MOOCs hit a flexibility sweetspot that force you to do some work by the end of the week, but that are not too fixed on a weekly spot (like Mondays from 9h-12h).

There are assignments and, most importantly, there is a community built around the class that can be very helpful to strengthen the learning process. In my course, the community was not limited to the discussion forum inside the platform, but quickly a facebook group was formed and local groups as well – even though I never took the time to join a local group.

Overall the experience was good and I think I learned what I had intended, but I am very cautious before saying this is what higher education should be about. For now all universities seem to be experimenting with the idea, even though some universities are already offering credits to students who complete a MOOC.

So what does that mean to us, grad students? More than we think – and more than we discuss. While it is easy for tenured professors to disregard the phenomenon as yet another education fad, I think we can’t afford to do so. By the time we graduate, we will need to know where we stand. Are we ready to teach a MOOC? What is the benefit for the instructor? And what will happen to standard “101” intro classes? Wouldn’t it be easier to let students follow a course from a better instructor through a MOOC instead of trying to replicate the same experience?

Unfortunately it appears that today we have more questions than answers, but so far I see two potential trajectories: one is that the MOOCs offering will grow for a while, but then they will settle as another side activity of universities – a bit like previous online non-participatory offerings. But the second one involves deeper and more fundamental changes to the structure of higher education – with its current model of increasing tuition prices, decreasing government funding. Since this is the career we chose to pursue, we should not play where the puck is now, but where it is going to be.

What about you? Are you ready for the MOOCs?

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