Why a MOOC? 6 Reasons

There is no shortage of news about MOOCs in the media.  When a topic gets that much traction, one of my questions is, “What part of the story is not getting much attention?”  Many of the recent editorials, blogs and press releases focus upon three things.  The first is about new MOOCs and new MOOC initiatives.  These stories are interesting, but they are not intended to drill down into any deep questions about MOOCs.  They are largely announcements with a few details.  A second popular type of news focuses upon the concept of the MOOC as a disruptive innovation.  They are largely essays that muse about the implications for higher education.  The third is the MOOC critique, as people consider some of the potential dangers or limitations of this type of learning environment. All of these have their place, but I am looking for more discussion about the “why” of MOOCs.  Let’s briefly consider a few of them here.

1. Research – When the leadership of Harvard and MIT hosted a press conference about edX, they noted that it was a massive research project intended to garner insight into promising or best practices in online education.  Of course, I do have questions about that.  Given the fundamental characteristics of the MOOC, edX is likely to lend it self toward certain research questions and away from others.  Nonetheless, their stated intent is clear.  This is a research effort.

2. Scaling Education – Some point back to early comments in the 1960s and again in the 1990s and 2000s about how to massively scale education using emerging technologies.

3. Opening Education – A third vision behind MOOCs is a vision for open learning, increasing access and opportunity for individuals around the world.  This is largely what motivates my recently announced MOOC.

4. Marketing – With the growing number of press releases about Universities offering MOOCs, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a marketing drive behind the efforts.  I don’t question that they are offering value, but it seems clear that part of the “why?” has to do marketing, even if it is an interesting approach to relationship marketing.

5. College Readiness – This is a new and exciting answer to the “Why?” question about MOOCs.  The first that I saw it explicitly stated was in a press release about a MOOC project at the University of Wisconsin Lacrosse.  They announced a grant-funded MOOC that will help prepare prospective students the remedial math assistance, hopefully improving their chance of success once they reach the campus down the road.

6. Digital Citizenship – I don’t hear anyone actually using this phrase with regard to MOOCs, but the spirit of “University as citizen” or “University as digital citizen” does seem to be behind many efforts as well.  James Bryant Conant once noted that, “A scholar’s activities should have relevance.”  Similarly, The University of Wisconsin is well-known for The Wisconsin Idea, a vision that the work of the University should be of service to the people and communities in Wisconsin.  These are visions for leveraging the knowledge and expertise of the University in service to the local, regional, national, and global community.  I suppose that this could be seen as similar to  “open learning.”  The difference that I see is that the “open learning” movement appears largely focused upon increasing access and opportunity, where the digital citizenship vision is a broader and more general act of participation in the digital world, engaging in a give and take relationship.

I’m sure that this is not an exhaustive list.  Please add to it with a comment.

2 Replies to “Why a MOOC? 6 Reasons”

  1. Bernard Bull Post author

    Thanks for the comment. Your additional “why” is definitely an emerging reason from the perspective of the potential consumers of and participants in MOOCs. In this initial post, I was focusing on the why from the perspective of the individuals and institutions that are beginning to offer MOOCs. From that perspective, your additional reason might fit into the category of open learning, offering a course that can increase access and opportunity for learners wherever they my be located.

  2. Dave Black

    What about the idea of personalizing education — allowing individuals to pursue areas of interest or aptitude no matter what the curriculum might be in an individual school. Wouldn’t that be another “why” to pursue?

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