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If MOOCs are to be as influential and ubiquitous as many predict, the effort of colleges and universities (and organizations and associations) not on the roster of elite campuses must be acknowledged and supported. Here is a brief enumeration of less well-known MOOC predecessors:
Fathom. In the late 1990s, Columbia University established Fathom as a for-profit effort to leverage the Web as a strategic resource for extending higher education’s reach to a public hungry for access to educational resources. Ann Kirschner, now Dean of Macaulay Honors College at The City University of New York, was retained to develop the program. Kirschner architected Fathom as an online learning community of practice for public audiences interested in the experience of “being at a great university or a great museum.” Regarding Fathom and its place in the developmental trajectory of online learning, Kirschner noted that “learning is not limited to the classroom, and the many other types of content provided through Fathom will provide a more complete and accessible context for knowledge. We believe that Fathom will define the transformation of the online learning category into a broader interactive knowledge marketplace.” Columbia invested $25 million in the venture, and 65,000 people created accounts, but few participants paid for any of the courses and the effort failed to turn a profit. Columbia closed Fathom in 2003, retaining the site’s online content was retained until mid-2011.
Sunoikisis. Sunoikisis is a national consortium of Classics programs that began in 2000 as an initiative of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS). Sunoikisis provides inter-institutional courses for students of the Classics. Since its beginning, it has demonstrated how to leverage technology to create extended curricular offerings across multiple campuses. The Sunoikisis program offers a wider range of disciplinary coursework, interaction with student peers and faculty than would ever be possible at a single small liberal arts college. Faculty and students from thirty-five colleges have participated in Sunoikisis programs since its inception.
Connexions. “Connexions,” its web site declares, “is a dynamic digital educational ecosystem consisting of an educational content repository and a content management system optimized for the delivery of educational content.” Connexions was launched as a non-profit start-up by Rice University in 1999, with the explicit aim to “reinvent how we write, edit, publish, and use textbooks and other learning materials.” Connexions is a repository of open educational resources that can be described in four words that borrow from an Apple advertising slogan and a book by Lawrence Lessig:
Create – in Connexions, everyone is free to create educational materials and contribute them to the repository;
Rip – in Connexions, everyone is free to copy the material and customize it;
Mix – in Connexions, everyone is free to mix the material together into new books and courses;
Burn – in Connexions, everyone is free to create finished products like e-learning web courses, CD-ROMs, and even printed books.
Although Fathom was discontinued a decade ago, both Sunoikisis and Connexions remain viable.
These are but three examples of projects and programs that represent significant components in the development of online learning. MOOCs are the most recent and most heavily publicized, and are themselves evolving. Ultimately, each generation’s wave of hyped arguments promoting the disruptive nature of technological progress necessarily matures, growing from provocative visions of Apocalypse or Paradise into a more prosaic real-world application.
Today, confronted with various “flavors” of MOOC, we have the opportunity and obligation to determine exactly how they make sense for higher education, and to recognize that they are here to stay in some form. It may be that MOOCs will eventually play a broader social, economic, and cultural role than one that is higher-education-specific. Whatever the case, we in higher education must take this opportunity to examine how MOOCs might fit into the broader context of twenty-first-century higher education—an exercise requiring not that we assess MOOCs in and of themselves, but that we assess how they can be made a meaningful part of an institution’s overall strategy.
Next: Chapter 2: Identifying Expectation and Hope: Out of hype, hope.