What is a MOOC? And why does it matter?

What is a MOOC? When I posted an article about MOOCs to Hacker News and the /r/truereddit forum on Reddit, I thought many people in technology circles knew the answer — Massive Open Online Course. I was wrong, as evidenced by replies like this:

What is a MOOC? Reddit

For people who follow online education, it’s easy to forget that MOOCs — basically prerecorded video lectures and online components such as discussion boards, surveys, and course materials intended for audiences of thousands of students — are a relatively new phenomenon. Soon, however, they will become mainstream, as more young people are exposed to MOOC coursework and colleges succumb to pressure to reduce costs related to faculty and physical classrooms.

HarvardX controversy prompts “What is a MOOC” post

The article that prompted the “What is a MOOC?” questions is actually very interesting. Titled, “Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC“, it covers the reaction of professors who reject the use of exported HarvardX teaching materials for their students in San Jose. They rightly point out that MOOCs are extremely lacking in interactive features. For instance, Harvard’s “Justice” course, taught in person by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel and provided as a MOOC through HarvardX, does not contain any mechanism that allows San Jose students to ask Sandel questions (related: More evidence of problems with distance education at Harvard). His response to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education,” wrote Mr. Sandel. “The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.”

But I found the answer on this Hacker News thread to be most interesting, in part because it expresses the concerns of students:

At the risk of setting up false dichotomies, I wonder:
Will a MOOC instructor answer my emails, take a phone call, or meet with me in person?
Will a MOOC instructor help me network with potential employers and internship sponsors?
Will a MOOC instructor be my mentor and help me navigate an increasingly difficult job market?
Will a MOOC instructor connect me to other like-minded students and professors?
Will a MOOC instructor act as an advisor for any interest groups or clubs at my school?
Will a MOOC instructor know who I am?

The answer: “No. That’s why the course is free.”


One thought on “What is a MOOC? And why does it matter?

  1. It is a false dichotomy. Only a tiny fraction of the world’s population have access to faculty who answer emails, mentor them, etc. Actually, only a tiny fraction of students paying tuition to higher education institutions have access to that. Meanwhile, a much larger group of people exists who are interested in getting an education. MOOCs have more to do with that broader sense of education than they have to do with the for-credit classes taught in universities. The philosophy department faculty at SJSU doesn’t have any answers for those MOOC students. Their logic seems to be that, while MOOCs have some value, their state legislators can’t be trusted with them, therefore everybody else has an ethical obligation not to create them. It seems a funny way for an educational institution in a democracy to respond to new educational opportunities.

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