Photo by Clare Hennig/The Gazelle

Online courses shift university learning

Photo by Clare Hennig/The Gazelle Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are web-based classes designed to support large numbers of participants ...

Apr 27, 2013

Photo by Clare Hennig/The Gazelle
Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are web-based classes designed to support large numbers of participants opening a new network of learners all around the world. The structure for each class varies greatly, but common features include lectures, forums, assignments, quizzes and readings.
Coursera, Udacity, edX and Kahn Academy are among the names establishing themselves in the e-learning industry. Coursera currently has 33 partner universities and more than 1.7 million registered students from 200 different countries. The number of users using MOOCs is growing faster than that of Facebook. The New York Times reported that the launch of MOOCs is drawing in more users than Facebook in its launching stage.
Online courses offer an alternative choice of educational style. With college costs growing every year, free educational resources can be an appealing tool. These courses, often from top universities such as MIT and Stanford with world-class faculty, can provide relief from outdated textbooks, poor teaching and other less-effective methods. Now various websites are offering accreditation, and although the value and legitimacy of MOOCs may continue to be challenged, some universities are slowly beginning to accept online classes for credit.
The pedagogy model is self-guided. Each person who signs up for the course may have different incentives, so each individual learner is self-motivated. Students can go through the material at their own pace, facilitated by the varying speeds of the pre-recorded lectures. The online material has vast breadth and depth in every subject and discipline, from computer programming to introductory sociology. Some courses are subscription-based and involve timed assignments and peer grading, while others require no commitments and are permanently accessible to everyone year-round. The anonymity and accessibility of online courses means that anyone can enroll, irrespective of occupation, age or location.
The difficulties of teacher-student and peer-to-peer engagement with the MOOC method require innovative new solutions. Since qualitative grading is limited by the large volume of participants, controversial peer grading systems are often used. For extended discussion, forums offer lively debate, and community projects become a teamwork-building, crowdsourcing effort. Some classes have opt-in or lottery-drawn Skype groups, while other students organize local discussions based on geographic proximity.
MOOCs are at the technological frontier of global education. The high-quality, continuously updated material comes free to anyone with Internet access. Writing in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mitchell Duneier, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, offers a noncredit Coursera course and was astounded by the teaching experience: “Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.”
Despite the new forms of pedagogy MOOCs have to offer, they are not a replacement for traditional degrees. Technological literacy is of growing importance, but social competence has always been important. Human interaction provides social and emotional skills necessary for development — skills that online programs will provide limited opportunities for at best. While the Internet has a wealth of technological tools, there are still limitations of the media form. A theater or language class may face difficult constraints, for example. However, if the online class is the only opportunity an individual may have to take a theater class, it may still be a meaningful experience.
Some say that MOOCs will revolutionize the next generation of young learners. Others say that the buzz is overblown and that the craze will pass. Others believe online and classroom educational forms can coexist symbiotically. The feedback loop works both ways, where traditional models have been transferred to online databases, and new online course exemplars can help inspire educators. Classroom learning can provide the human dedication that teachers inspire in students, while the convenience, abundance and flexibility of online classes are useful for everyone, from teachers to entrepreneurs. As passion-driven, personalized learning — uniquely tailored to the strengths and weaknesses of each individual student — massive open online courses can provide unprecedented tools and fresh new perspectives.
Nevertheless, pedagogy will continue to evolve with technology. MOOCs will keep raising questions about the value of education and degrees in a rapidly growing yet shrinking world. With Google, Wikipedia and now online classes, the role of educators and teachers has and will continue to transform. With the new colossal informational networks that connect post-industrial societies, educational forms will adapt to globalization as well.
Julia Xu is news editor. Email her at
gazelle logo