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NOTE: Georgianne Hewett, Director for Shared Academics at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE), contributed to this essay.
In general, people are fascinated with trends that predict dramatic changes in the way we live, work, communicate and learn. Whether The Next Big Thing” or “The End of [insert established cultural milieu here] As We Know It,” trends that have the potential to deconstruct the familiar seduce us into obsessing about them and endlessly bandying them about in conversation and debate. We relish in reacting—often with little information—to evolutions (and advertised revolutions) that promise to move us further from how it was done in our day.
That has certainly been the case with MOOCs. In late 2011 and early 2012, anyone following education media might have seen them mentioned in one or two articles each week. But before the year was out, MOOCs had come to dominate education news and draw crowds to conferences and online webinars. Now, hopes for MOOCs have blown sky-high. But what exactly do we hope to gain from this latest iteration of online learning? What actual problems are MOOCs expected to solve? Reading the plethora of essays, articles, blog posts, and survey results on the topic makes clear that expectations for MOOCs are varied and contradictory.
A quick survey of publicly declared hopes reveals that MOOCs will reduce the cost of education, increase the cost of education, save money, make money, lower tuition, raise tuition, generate revenue, incur additional costs, shorten time to graduation, increase enrollments, ensure that students are able to register for required courses, provide data for learning analytics, kick-start competency-based assessment programs, provide the highest quality education from the most elite institutions for free, and solve the global education crisis.
Each of these expectations has been expressed in serious articles and essays this past year. But those who have stripped away the Next-Big-Thing veneer from the MOOC debate have begun to understand that MOOCs can be made a useful tool for higher education. MOOCs in all of their manifestations can connect learners, instructors, and knowledge in dynamic and extensible ways. They can foster student-centered learning and require students to take responsibility for their education in a forthright manner.
For those charged with defining the strategic direction of institutions of higher education, however, it is vital to guard against being swept up in the wave of overheated rhetoric and keep a focus on strategies that advance the institutional mission. Carefully analyze reports and review them with staff and colleagues in the context of your stated strategic plan. And in the review and analysis of potential MOOCs, keep in mind the role that learning plays in modern life generally. Such an exercise provides a baseline for productive review.
We are hard-wired to learn from the moment we are born. Whether we attended public or private school, were home-schooled, or fall into the newer category of the “unschooled,” we are all learners. We are excited by the discovery of subjects that capture our interest and stir our imagination. We value lessons that expand our knowledge, change our perspective and send us down new paths. We disdain work or education requirements that chafe and feel like a waste of time. At its core—and most pertinent to the present conversation about MOOCs—learning connects us to one another. This is why MOOCs are so inherently appealing at first glance: they promise to deliver access to learning and interaction in a new, almost infinitely expansive mode. If we regard MOOCs in the broader context of our regard for learning, we are better positioned to discern their inherent potential and the role they could play as part of an institution’s strategic mission.