A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process

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Image by Ilonka Tallina

[This post was originally uploaded on November 15, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on February 18, 2015.]

Studying for and then taking the New York State bar exam was for me about as much fun as having a root canal without Novocaine. In fact, root canal might even been preferable.

Nonetheless, the most extraordinary learning experience I have ever had while studying for anything up to that point was attending a two-day comprehensive lecture on the Federal Rules of Evidence by the legendary law professor Irving Younger. This subject is a challenge to fully master and always a favorite topic throughout the exam. Having attended Professor Younger’s mesmerizing lectures, not only did I feel prepared for the questions on evidence but I left fully convinced that he could have taken in anyone at random walking by the building and taught him or her enough about this subject to pass. Please check out this video on YouTube of his dynamic lecture on 10 Commandments Of Cross Examination at UC Hastings College Of The Law for, well, incontrovertible evidence of this.

For many years during and after Professor Younger’s life, some US law schools kept audio tapes of his lectures on evidence and civil procedures on file in their libraries. If he was lecturing today, it is a near certainty that his classes would now accessible across the Web.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are classes presented on the web so that anyone can learn just about any subject from anywhere across the globe. Universities, public and private schools, and other for providers from many fields have placed video lectures, syllabi, downloadable course materials, and
discussion forums available. Homework assignments and projects are often part of the MOOC experience.

Users can audit these courses, obtain certifications for having attended them and done the course work, and even have degrees conferred. MOOCs related by topic are often group together into pre-packaged options. Of course, the quality of these offerings can vary quite a bit. But to a highly significant degree the web is transforming the process of education.

If you are not yet familiar with this revolution in education, I suggest starting with this report by correspondent Sanjay Gupta on 60 Minutes on CBS that was first broadcast on September 2, 2012. It is about the wildly popular and highly effective classes offered online by The Khan Academy for students around the world on a multitude of subjects. The video classes are largely designed for grade school through high school levels. I think The Khan Academy’s smashing web-wide success with students and educators add new credence and incentive the old adage that a great instructor can effectively teach his or her subject to anyone interested in learning new things.

This Wikipedia page provides an excellent survey of the expanding universe of MOOCs, with a surfeit of valuable links baked in, to help you navigate this rapidly evolving world. As well, an article posted on BusinessInsider.com on November 4, 2014, entitled 15 Free Online Resources That Will Make You
Smarter by Sujan Patel is a terrific reference and fully linked on-ramp to today’s leading MOOC providers for business, finance, tech and academic topics.

During the past year I have had an opportunity to take a number of MOOCs available on Coursera.com (one of the 15 online providers covered in this article). Two of these quickly became Professor Younger-like experiences from which I learned more than I could have imaging at imagined from the course description when I registered, and for which I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to participate.

The first was Content Strategy for Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization taught by Professor John Lavine of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. (Creating a free membership online will give you access to the links for both classes described here.) This was a brain-bending six-week MOOC that thoroughly defined, explored and demonstrated what exactly “content strategy” is in the rapidly changing world of e-commerce and how to put its best practices into action. The home page for this MOOC does an expert job of describing the particulars.

The second was Understanding Media by Understanding Google taught by Professor Owen R. Youngman, also of Medill. This was a captivatingly deep and wide examination of the numerous services, influences and technologies that have made Google such a pervasive global phenomenon. Again, please see this MOOC’s home page for the flight plan of an educational journey will not soon forget.

In both of these MOOCs the classes were given assignment and projects to provide valuable practical experience that could readily be adapted and applied back in the workplace. Moreover, what I found that really rocked were the discussion forums for these MOOCs. Thousands of participants from across the globe generated and joined into thousands of online discussion threads about the contents of each week’s lectures. A strong sense of community quickly arose and rarely have ever seen such high bandwidth, crackling virtual exchanges of ideas, experiences, commentary and enthusiasm as I did here. The highest levels of civility and respect were also scrupulously maintained by everyone who participated.

Both of these MOOCs will be given again in 2015. I highly recommend checking the Coursera site for their scheduling and then registering for them.

Did I mention that these two MOOCs and all others of Coursera, as well as the majority in the links to Wikipedia and BusinessInsider.com above are reasonably priced to sell: They are available for free!

February 18, 2015 Update

Are MOOCs still being perceived as truly disruptive? Well, maybe not so much for now at least.
Notwithstanding my enthusiasm and appreciation above for MOOCs as a genuine shift in the paradigm of technology-enabled learning, their star might not be shining as brightly as before.

According to an article posted on the Chronicle Of Higher Education’s website on February 5, 2015, entitled The MOOC Hype Fades, in Three Charts, by Steve Kolowich, the latest data gathered about this phenomenon appears to be trending this way. I will sum up some of the key points, and ad some links and comments. I urge you to click through for all of the details and three informative charts.

The Babson Survey Research Group released its 2014 report entitled Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2014 on February 5, 2015. Its initial key finding is that while the number of schools offering MOOCs has steadied at 14%, doubts remain among 2,800 academics surveyed that online courses could generate funds or reduce costs. The first chart clearly shows sentiment in this regard has reached nearly 51%.

The fiscal sustainability of MOOCs depends on these educators’ points of view. A mere 6% actually expected MOOCs to make money or lower costs. Rather, their main motivation for their MOOCs is to raise their school’s profile and enhance student recruitment. They further realize that quantifying this is rather difficult.

The second chart is a bar graph of six factors those surveyed believe will prospectively have the largest effects upon higher education. “Cost/student indebtedness” ranked highest with 62% and “self-directed learning” ranked last with just 9%.

According to the third chart, 20% of the schools also felt that trying out MOOCs would provide “new insights about teaching and learning”. Nonetheless, there has been a steep decline from 50% to 28% in the last two years of the number of schools that felt compelled to learn more about “online pedagogy” (which, in its simplest terms, means studying and implementing the best teach methods).

Thus, according to this Chronicle article, the “hype” surrounding MOOCs has been reduced. Educators are trending towards not seeing MOOCs as quite so transformative. Rather, the consensus is now that MOOCs have their place in recruiting and research for those schools with the resources available. These findings also provide incentives for those schools still reluctant about MOOCs to at least give them a try.

As with any meaningful new online phenomenon sweeping a broad market sector, I remain optimistic about the future of MOOCs for the following reasons:

  • The growing utility and ubiquity of MOOCs can reach people across the web who neither have the time nor funds to attend traditional classes. They are indeed priced to sell and free is a tough price to beat for such a useful and dynamic product.
  • Attending MOOCs helps students to maintain and enhance their levels of skills and knowledge which, in turn, have an upward effect on wages.
  • As educators and MOOC platforms such as Coursera continue to move up the experience curve they will be able to better market their content and shape their course offerings. Moreover, they will continually learn and thus refine how MOOCs are structured, taught and distibuted.
  • As mobile technology, web accessibility and cloud storage capabilities continue to accelerate while getting smaller, faster and cheaper, MOOCs will likewise be able to take advantage of these trends and reaches even greater numbers of students with more expansive offerings. Their economies of scale will continue to be reached and surpassed.
  • Based on my own personal experience with 10 MOOCs during the past year, I have found them to be invaluable in keeping my skills and knowledge current in a number areas. I have learned about subjects, resources and online communities that I might have not otherwise had an opportunity to discover. Surely many other MOOC participants have had the same experience.

4 thoughts on “A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process

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