The Rise of the MOOCs

I really enjoyed this week’s readings and thinking about how digital humanities will shape the ways that we learn and teach in the future. As we’ve discussed in class, incorporating digital tools into our classrooms is now a fun way to try out new learning techniques. But eventually, a non-digital classroom may very well be a thing of the past. As both “A Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age” and “Pillars of Institutional Pedagogy” (in The Future of Learning in the Digital Age) point out, we are doing our students a disservice by not allowing them to take advantage of the myriad resources available online.

In “A Bill of Rights,” Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel discuss MOOCs, which I am familiar with. A few years ago, I spent a lot of time writing articles for a website about online learning opportunities, and many of these articles required me to research and list MOOCs from different disciplines. As a result, I found myself immersed in these classes in my free time, following curriculum in literature courses from Yale Free Courses and MIT’s Open Courseware. I found it amazing that you could access course information, syllabi, quizzes, and lectures (sometimes as videos, sometimes as transcripts) for courses taught by superstar faculty at prestigious universities. Now, of course, this has become more commonplace, as MOOCs are more and more prevalent.

The New York Times called 2012 “The Year of the MOOC,” and then I remember reading a New Yorker article about how MOOCs are failing. (Google tells me the article was from 2014. Could it have been that long ago??) The argument of The New Yorker, and of many people I’ve spoken to, is that MOOCs are not personal or individualized. Without instructor feedback, learners are largely finding themselves lost, unsure of how to measure their progress, and unsure of what the pay-off is for the time spent. Of course, the most obvious pay-off is a growing knowledge of a subject, but online learners wanted something more…

But MOOCs have been evolving since 2014, and now sites such as edX offer free courses with the added benefit of peer review and collaboration. This not only keeps learners accountable for their work, but it also allows them to receive, and give, valuable feedback. This “networked learning” is an important principle outlined by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg in “Pillars of Institutional Pedagogy”. They write that individual learning “leans on a social framework that stresses competition and hierarchy rather than cooperation, partnering, and mediation. . . . The power of ten working interactively will almost invariably outstrip the power of one looking to beat out the other nine” (30). Every online learner brings something new to the course, especially in this global environment, so collaboration among participants can help knowledge scaffolding far beyond the course content itself.

EdX also follows many of Morris and Stommel’s Bills of Rights and Principles. For instance, Morris and Stommel stress the importance of pedagogical transparency: “Students have the right to understand the intended outcomes—educational, vocational, even philosophical—of an online program or initiatives.” And, indeed, EdX explains, “By carefully assessing course data, from mouse clicks to time spent on tasks, to evaluating how students respond to various assessments, researchers hope to shed light on how learners access information and master materials, with the ultimate aim of improving course outcomes.”

So the next question remains: To what end? Is there any real, transferrable benefit to taking these courses? Sites such as edX and Coursera now offer certificates that are issued as you successfully pass courses (but … wait for it … you have to pay for the verified certificate). If MOOCs are the future, these certificates will soon have some bearing. Some people have even begun listing them on their CVs and resumes or posting on their LinkedIn profiles.

I think that MOOCs are a wonderful alternative to a rigid brick-and-mortar educational path, but there still seems to be some work to do, both in examining the true impact on learners and on looking into the real-world benefits down the road.


One thought on “The Rise of the MOOCs

  1. I used to work in the Registrar’s office and remember students asking me, worried, if their transcripts would show that a course they took was online. The concern was that an employer or graduate institution would look down at such a thing. That perception is certainly changing, but you bring up an excellent point about the economics of online education. It is “mostly” free, for now, but how does that affect the livelihoods of professors (not to mention everyone else whose income depends on the higher education system), and perhaps more importantly, how does that affect the perception of education’s value? And I appreciate you bringing the big data question in here as well. These are really exciting tools, but I completely agree there’s much more work to be done in understanding how we move forward with them.


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