Why do we need..MOOC?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are free online university based courses that allow anybody with a decent internet connection and an interest in knowledge to learn about something new. The courses are structured and typically range from 4 weeks to 3 months, some with fixed start dates and others with a learn as you go approach. 

MOOCs allow the learner to study when it suits and are the evolution of distance learning like correspondence school. Courses vary, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to astrobiology, genome sequencing, to the Galios theory. MOOCs expose the learner to a variety of different lecturers from different universities, including ones that some of us dream of going to, like MIT and Stanford.

Class Central is a website that regularly updates the names and start dates of courses hosted through sites like Edx, Coursera, and Future Learn. Edx (a non-profit MOOC) and Arizona State University have recently created the Global Freshman Academy which allows students to gain undergraduate credit for the courses they take. This is awesome, as usually all you can get is an e-certificate for participation in completing the course, which essentially holds no weight in the real world (pun intended). I never paid for a special certificate as I treated the knowledge gained as if I had obtained it from a book through my own private ad hoc studies. 

There are assignments. Often they involve researching an article or clip about the topic and commenting on it. The MOOC Guide have cited one criticism of MOOCs: the abundance of user generated commentary and supplementary material can be overwhelming, as well as the time and effort needed to understand it all. From personal experience, many more hours than neccesary were exhausted trying to stay on top and absorb the additional information. 

Other issues that the MOOC Guide highlighted is that MOOCs are reliant on a digital literate demographic, that the direction of the course could be changed, and the limited scope of the topics discussed. We (NZ) do not really need to worry about digital literacy. While MOOCs are offered in a variety of languages, it is assumed that because you are taking place in a MOOC that you are competent at navigating the web. This is the difference from finding and using an article found through Google Scholar or The Onion. As to the courses going off topic, if the course organisers are on to it (they usually are), then they acknowledge points raised in the discussions and then continue with their course plan. 

I struck the limited scope of a course when I looked at the global response to Ebola. While the facts and myths about Ebola were explained, the information regarding governmental and humanitarian response was limited to the US local, state, and federal bodies. They did suggest looking at your own country's response to outbreaks (interesting reading), but any focus questions and tests favoured the US. 

MOOCs will never replace brick and mortar universities. They are long established and value their reputations too much to allow some new upstart to muscle in on their turf. Not to mention that for obvious reasons, studies in law and medicine require a hands on approach. MOOCs allow the wider sharing of information in short structured bursts. There are no costs, sources and resources are readily found online, and the student sets the pace of their own learning. This is ideal for those who want to learn but feel threatened by universities, cannot afford to study, or have spent a lifetime doing one thing and now seeking a change. 

TL; DR – Education is a right that should be cheap (or free), and knowledge is to be shared. MOOC’s are a forward step in that direction. 

This article first appeared in Issue 4, 2016.
Posted 1:52pm Sunday 20th March 2016 by Anthony Marris.