Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have rocked the world of education probably faster than any other innovation in history. In just over a year, MOOCs have gone from being viewed as a panacea for all that ails education to being seen as an imposter: a cheapened form of education. Now the pendulum is swinging back to somewhere in the middle. Several pundits and observers have noted that MOOCs are following the Gartner hype cycle for emerging technologies, and most agree that we are now somewhere between the “trough of disillusionment” and the “slope of enlightenment,” on our way to the “plateau of productivity.”
As we move toward an environment where MOOCs are considered neither cure-alls nor curses, but rather tools that can be used in many different ways to improve education, it is useful to take a few steps back and examine where we've been and where we are so that we can make some reasonable predictions about where we're going.
Cathy Sandeen of the American Council on Education colorfully described MOOCs in a recent Huffington Post article as having “splashed on the higher education scene in sensational fashion” when Coursera and Udacity launched in early 2012. But, as she notes, the history of MOOCs goes back to 2008, when George Siemens and Stephen Downes offered “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” online for students at the University of Manitoba as well as for anyone else who was interested. The paying students at the university received credit for the course, and about 2000 additional students participated for free but not for credit. The theory behind this initial MOOC viewed knowledge as distributed and education as a process of building personal learning networks. Consequently, the course was based on open educational resources and peer learning.
It wasn't until the big names, like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT, came on the scene that the hype cycle really started to accelerate. In the spring of 2012, both Coursera and Udacity opened their virtual doors, with edX following a few months later. The courses offered through these platforms were fundamentally different from the 2008 MOOC experiment, more closely mirroring the traditional classroom experience, with lectures, discussions, and tests that consisted mostly of multiple-choice questions. Because of the elite universities associated with the courses, students started to sign up by the thousands, then by the tens of thousands, and then by the millions. The huge response to these courses ignited a fire under the entire education community – many people praised MOOCs for their ability to offer unprecedented access to education at a low cost, while many others criticized them for unsound pedagogy and lack of student accountability. But students continued to sign up and universities continued to jump on the bandwagon.
MOOCs gained credibility when the American Council on Education recommended some for credit, and the California and Texas higher education systems started to look for ways to use MOOCs, especially for over-enrolled and remedial classes. By that time, it had become apparent that MOOCs were a force that could not be ignored and that they could be powerful tools for solving many problems facing education, including the exponentially rising cost.
Inevitably, there came some bad news, and MOOCs crested the “peak of inflated expectations,” starting a headlong dive into the “trough of disillusionment.” The bad news came from a couple of different fronts. First, although top universities were offering MOOCs, none were accepting them for credit. Also, the dropout rates were very high, with less than 10 percent of enrolled students actually completing their courses. In addition, many educators attacked the pedagogy of MOOCs, particularly those with no interactive component. To top it all off, San Jose State University recently put a partnership with Udacity on “pause” after initial results showed that students in the MOOC section of a class performed worse than students in the traditional section.
Predictably, there have been a few “I told you so's,” and educators across the country are breathing sighs of relief that their jobs are not in imminent danger. But now, MOOCs are moving along the “slope of enlightenment” as we examine what works and what doesn't in the current MOOC format and use these discoveries to improve education. For example, instructors in many settings are using the flipped classroom model and incorporating MOOC elements into blended learning programs.
So what does the future look like for MOOCs?
Due to their popularity as well as the massive resources that have been invested in them, it is safe to say that MOOCs are here to stay, at least for now. So the question becomes how we will use them. Joshua Kim of Dartmouth College suggested in a recent edSurge article that MOOCs will promote investment and innovation in education because they “focus attention on teaching.” MOOCs have changed how we look at teaching and learning – they have shifted the focus of education away from the transfer of knowledge and toward what students can do with that knowledge. This change is in line what has been framed as a shift from a knowledge economy to a creative economy. With information at our fingertips 24/7, the new focus is on critical thinking, problem-solving, judgment, and decision-making – which incidentally are also the workplace skills that are currently in the highest demand.
MOOCs and their elements are also starting to be incorporated into different areas of education, like corporate training, workplace skills training, and continuing and professional development. The goals of training programs are different than those for higher education – organizations' main focus is performance outcomes that result directly from employee training. For these programs, MOOCs have the potential to deliver the necessary training effectively and at huge cost savings. In fact, some writers have suggested that the early MOOCs were barking up the wrong tree – the ideal target audience for these courses is not Stanford students or leisure learners; it is workers who need to acquire new skills and competencies to upgrade their skills and perform better in their jobs. Several MOOCs are already aimed at this audience, such as Coursera's continuing education programs for teachers and Aquent's recently opened Gymnasium, which offers coding courses for creative professionals.
As MOOCs move toward the “plateau of productivity,” the focus will shift from whether or not they should be used to finding the best ways to use them. New tools and technologies will become available, new audiences will be engaged, and new innovations will improve the learning experience for everyone involved. Only then will MOOCs live up to their promise of disrupting and transforming education.