MOOCs - Fad or game changer?

The utilization of the internet for education in the form of MOOCs or Massive Open Online courses is a contentious issue at the moment. It seems that most people believe one of two things, either MOOCs are a fad and it’s a waste of time taking them or they will completely and irreversibly change the educational landscape by bringing knowledge to the masses. I, ever the optimist, lean towards the latter but think it’s important to look where MOOCs came from to get an idea of where they are going.   

Correspondence courses

The idea for distance learning was around long before the internet, in the UK in the 1840’s Sir Isaac Pitman used correspondence courses to teach his style of shorthand. In 1858 the University of London established its external program for conducting distance learning.

In 1888 the international correspondence schools based out of Scranton Pennsylvania was created in order to provide training for immigrant coal miners. The number of people enrolled at the ICS increased dramatically in the 1890’s with 72,000 students enrolling in 1895, far more than the 2500 the previous year. The growth was largely due to advertising, using aggressive in person salesman and spending large amounts on magazine adverts.

The ICS had very high dropout rates, only one in six students got past the first third of the material and as little as 2.6% finished the courses. These poor rates were attributed to a lack of encouragement, bad study habits and underestimating the difficulty.

TV and Radio

At the very least 200 city school systems, 25 state boards and several universities were transmitting academic programs for public schools by 1938.

In 1969 the Open University (OU) was established in the UK, initially the OU used television and radio broadcasts for much of its delivery. Many other similar institutions were created in various countries including in Canada, Spain and Germany all between 1970 and 1974.

The first courses that involved the use of computers were from the Coastline Community College which was created in 1976 by Bernard Luskin and promoted as a college beyond walls. The idea was that computer assisted instruction was combined with telecourses on the Coast Community College District public television station.


MOOCs and Open Educational Resources

In 2002 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched a project called MIT OpenCourseWare which planned on releasing its entire course catalogue. At UNESCOs 2002 Forum on the Impact of Open Courseware for Higher Education in Developing Countries the term open educational resources was first used, this term was used to describe freely accessible and openly licensed educational documents and media. This was a huge step forwards.

 In 2008 Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island coined the term MOOC,   describing an open online course that was run by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council in Canada.

Fast Typing

Stanford University launched three online courses in the fall of 2011 which each had around 100,000 students. Following the success of these courses a website called Udacity was born, Udacity, was created by Sebastian Thrun who had been involved in one of the Stanford courses called Artificial Intelligence. Udacity has no affiliations to Stanford.

 A second website came from the Stanford courses called Coursera. Coursera partnered with Stanford and released the two other courses called Databases and Machine learning. Coursera now has many partnerships with different Universities such as Princeton and the University of Michigan.

MIT joined the fray with its not for profit MITx, in March 2012 it launched its first course 6.002x. Harvard joined this initiative, which was now renamed edx, in the spring followed by the university of California, Berkeley in the summer.   

In November 2012 the University of Miami Global Academy was launched, this is the first high school MOOC. Around the same time there was another first, wedubox, the first MOOC in Spanish was launched.   

What next?

It’s hard to tell what will happen with online education in the future, one aspect that many would like to change is the lack of accreditation which some projects such as coursera are currently experimenting with, others say that mass education can never work and MOOCs will fail because of the lack of student-teacher interaction. One way or another it is hard to argue that giving information away for free is a bad thing and I hope that MOOCs carry on developing and maintain their current popularity because a more educated world is worth aspiring for.