By Jim Shimabukuro
In a video interview, Jonathan Moules1 asks Simon Nelson, CEO of FutureLearn, some tough questions about the current state of MOOCs.
Noules’ Moules’ questions caught my attention:
- “How much of an issue is it that most of the people signed up for FutureLearn and other online education platforms already have a degree?”
- “What’s more important, is it broadening access to millions of people across the planet to education or is it about making money?”
- “How do you make money from online education?”
- “A criticism of online education has been that a lot of people signing up for these courses don’t complete them. Do you see that as a challenge?”
And I found Nelson’s responses succinct, clear, practical, and informed.
As much as these questions and responses are enlightening, however, I can’t help but feel that they continue to pigeonhole MOOCs as fascinating but peripheral, impractical and ineffective counterparts to standard college courses. As long as this perception persists, MOOCs will remain outside the circle of serious discussion in higher ed, and this alienation will prolong the wait for the next step in course design.
In my mind, MOOCs are much more than a far-out platform for free courses with almost limitless seating capacity. If we can get past the idea that they are a specific course type, built in stone, we can begin to explore the endless possibilities that they represent as a tabula rasa for envisioning the shape of courses to come in the 21st century. In other words, MOOCs have expanded our conception of what a course can be, offering us a whole view that takes into account the latest technological breakthroughs.
The most significant breakthrough is anywhere-anytime learning, which automatically eliminates the space and time barriers that traditional classrooms represent. Completely online courses already do this, but MOOCs are rattling the concrete and steel infrastructure that has defined course development in higher ed for the last century and more by:
- obliterating the traditional semester time frame for courses
- shattering ceiling caps for class size
- expanding credit and certification options
- altering society’s perception of the value of a college degree
- lowering the cost of a college degree
- breaking the grip of traditional tuition and fee schedules
- abandoning longstanding business models
- redefining the role of teacher and teaching
- empowering and liberating students in the learning and teaching process
- changing the definition of “traditional” and “nontraditional” student
- emphasizing operational knowledge over GPA and degree
- opening up opportunities for self-pacing, acceleration, and a system of floating modular courses that can be combined in different ways to support learning
- shifting the definition of “campus” from on-ground to online
- adding meat to the bone of lifelong learning
- ignoring geographical, political, social, cultural, economic, age, and institutional boundaries at all levels — including local, state, national, and international — in the admissions process
- extending the field for course development beyond the confines of college campuses
In other words, MOOCs are not so much a done deal or a narrow range of static models as they are a drawing board for the widest possible spectrum of course designs. They clarify the outer limits of the elements that could go into the planning and development mix for any course. Designers, like chefs, now have a wide range of ingredients before them, and they are limited only by their imagination in cooking up winning dishes.
This means that the outlook for MOOCs is wide open. Any course can be MOOCed to one degree or another by incorporating one or more features from the list above and adjusting them to fit specific needs. MOOCing is not an all-in or all-out process. It’s a smorgasbord of features that blows the lid off traditional course design.
From the standpoint of course designers, MOOCs are a liberating force, adding options to their palette that they couldn’t imagine just a few years ago. The question now isn’t so much if administrators will loosen their grip on course development but when, and in the coming months and years we’re going to see the more progressive leaders flashing the green light, lighting the way to a new era in which course designers, inspired by MOOCs, will be serving up a wide range of courses for an ever-widening spectrum of students.
1 Jonathan Moules, “How to Make Free Moocs Sustainable,” Financial Times, 25 Sep. 2015.