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.

Of Course There are Significant Differences

Online learning is a disruptive innovation in education.  It has created new education markets by increasing access, opportunity, and choice to people around the globe.  It has challenged people to consider new possibilities for effective and engaging learning environments.  As a researcher and distance learning leader, I am among the first to speak about the promise and benefits of online learning.  I am quick to point out the myriad of “no significant difference studies” when it comes to student outcomes in online versus face-to-face learning. I will note that online learning opens the doors of higher education to people in a variety of circumstances.  The single mom working two jobs who aspires to a new calling in life can make that a reality with online programs, getting her work done after the kids are in bed.  The salesperson with an 80% travel schedule can work toward an MBA without having to miss class.  Working adults are able to develop new knowledge and skills to advance in their company through online and blended courses, ones that allow for study in the evenings and weekends.  There are hundreds of such scenarios that illustrate the promise and value of online learning.  There are hundreds of similar scenarios that point out the benefits of other forms of learning as well, the traditional resident-based liberal arts college, study at a research University, or participation in one of the alternative Universities.

It is too simplistic to say that there are no significant differences.  There are many significant and substantive differences and it is obvious.  The way that students communicate and work in online programs is qualitatively different.  The way that students interact with the instructor and one another is different.  The way that students experience the school culture is different.   It is different to look people in the eye in an intimate seminar class, debating a particular topic.  That is an altogether different experience from having an online debate on the same subject in a threaded discussion or even a live synchronous online session.  All of these things and more are different, and they matter.  This is not to say that one is always better than the other, but I am saying that qualitative differences are of significance.  These are worth reflection and consideration as schools decide if, when and how to implement online learning… because there are many ways to do so, and each way has affordances and limitations.

These are also worth reflection for the person who is seeking the education.  Beyond course, grades and a degree; what else is important for a given learner?  Is networking important?  How about a deep and lasting mentoring relationship with an expert in your field?  How important is it for you to develop new friendships and relationships that revolve around common passions and interests?  How important is cost and getting out of college with few or no loans?  How important is it for you to have a flexible education that allows you to fulfill other responsibilities in your life while pursuing your formal education?  Do you want to develop your ability to tele-commute and communicate in writing using a variety of emerging technologies?  Or, do you see a need to hone your ability to think and speak on the spot, in a room full of diverse people?  These are worthwhile considerations.

Education is about more than courses, grades, and course or program-specific outcomes.  It is about more than measuring student learning, student engagement and student retention.  It is about more than strategic planning, mission statements and core values.  All of these are valuable and important, but education is always about more than these.  The one non-negotiable in education is learning.  That is the essential attribute.  The rest goes into the category of “important” or “merely present.” It is now time for schools and students alike to have open and lengthy conversations about what is important to them and why.