MOOC: Finally! A Revolution in Education.

While the public swoons over the arrival of the latest smart watch and FitBit, and the newest smart phone is your grandchild’s constant obsession, another quieter, more lasting revolution is unfolding in the technological world. It comes in the form of MOOC, which stands for Massive Open Online Courses, and promises a sea change in the most basic of our public needs.

Accessible education for all, the stuff that academics and students dream about, has arrived without fanfare or the benefit of a trade show. We shouldn’t be surprised—just as the Internet has invaded corporate and government domination over the communication and music industries, it has now set its sights on one of the most change-resistant public services ever, college education, threatening to make it virtually free, and to end that monopoly for all time.

As reported in Jeremy Rifkin’s new book,

“The revolution began when a Stanford University professor, Sebastion Thrum, offered a ‘free’ course in artificial intelligence (AI) online in 2011, one similar to the course he taught at the University. Around 200 students normally enrolled in Thurm’s course, so he anticipated that only a few thousand would register. But by the time it commenced, 160,000 students from every country in the world with the exception of North Korea were sitting at their computers, in the biggest classroom ever convened for a single course in all of history. Twenty-three thousand of those students completed the course and graduated.’ (Rifkin, 2014, p. 114)

Within a matter of minutes, an institution which had been calcified for 500 years, whose last significant invention had been the printing press, took a dramatic turn. Online learning is forcing the rethinking of the educational process. A coming together of innovations such as active learning, self pacing, instant feedback, gamification, and peer learning (all tried piecemeal in various brick and mortar classrooms) are now possible and routine.

Since that auspicious beginning, several online universities have emerged rapidly to offer courses in a variety of formats:
Udacity: a for-profit educational organization founded by Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky
EdX, founded and governed by colleges and universities, this is the only leading MOOC provider that is both nonprofit and open source
Udemy: a global online marketplace for online learning where students have access to an extensive library of over 42,000 courses taught by expert instructors.
Coursera, a venture backed, for profit MOOC, which offers many courses free

A disruptive vision

These online colleges, and others (Peer-to-Peer University, University of the People) that follow, are characterized by a missionary zeal to change education. Udemy’s site, for instance, with more than 100,000 students enrolled, professes, “Our goal is to disrupt and democratize education by enabling anyone to learn from the world’s experts.”

Molly Broad, president, American Council on Education, and quoted in The Hechinger Report, weighs in:

“This is a period of significant transformation. I hope [conventional universities] are paying attention to it. It is not beyond our reach to think that there will be a wide array of choices that can be mixed and matched by institutions, by other kinds of non-higher-education institutions, and by individuals pursuing independent learning…The brick-and-mortar campus, really now serves only a portion of the population.”

The sudden enrolment of hundreds of thousands of motivated students around the world who can now secure sophisticated skills and high paying jobs, is seen, by some as a threat to traditional institutions. And it is, if you look at it realistically:
Brick and mortar universities are tremendously expensive to maintain. Factoring in the cost of the purchase and maintenance of the land and buildings, the engagement of the faculty and the student body, it is no wonder universities have a reputation for escalating costs, and students have massive debt loads.

MOOC has none of these expenses, all that is required is a professor with a course and a world wide network of students with a computer and an internet connection.
So are these courses free? Well, yes, almost—although even online courses have their built in expenses. A MOOC Stanford University course costs approximately $10,000 to $15,000 to put online (courses with video content are more). Universities have been creative in recouping some of these expense. in the form of fees. But factoring in the vast student body, the cost of bringing the courses to students is minimal, simply the cost of bandwidth, virtually free. (Rifkin, p.117)

What makes MOOC radically different:

What has happened here goes beyond concern about who is shut out, who is footing the bill, who loses and who gains: it is about taking higher education out of the hands of the institutions who have managed and mismanaged it for centuries—universities, governments, corporations, all are being successfully removed from the circle of power. As with free internet communications and free green energy, a new paradigm has arrived in learning. Education now belongs to everybody.

Jeremy Rifkin embeds MOOC into a new economic system, which he obliquely names the “Collaborative Commons”. But anyone involved in it, knows exactly what it means.

Brian Guan, for example, a Malaysian-born software engineer now living in Palo Alto, was one of the original applicants, and offers this vision, (as quoted in a March 4, 2012 New York Times article):

“I wish that the always-available, always-replayable and free nature of this style of learning can help to elevate education/knowledge for all of human kind.”

For University professors who participate in this movement, the experience is even more profound. Sebastion Thrum, speaking later at a digital conference about creating the first course, is prophetic:

“Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again, I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

For more, go to:
David Cormier
Anant Argawal

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38 Responses to MOOC: Finally! A Revolution in Education.

  1. Rummuser says:

    I dropped out of formal education after completing High School, and having obtained my undergraduate degree through distance education and while working, I quit and went to Business School for post graduate qualification. I can relate to the need for such initiatives. My alma mater, one of the world’s better Business Schools has just launched an online course and I am very pleased with that initiative. I wish that they had had something like this during my time as then I would not have had to quit my job to go there!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Just remembering the contortions I had to go through to get my education tires me out! I lived in a small town 4 hours away from a university. I and had to live in residence and travel back and forth every weekend in order to see and care for my children, who were then 10 and 11. An online course would have been a Godsend! I wasn’t working at the time, Rummuser, so at least I didn’t have to quit a job in order to learn!

  2. I have explored and used online courses for enrichment purposes but the idea of taking these courses for accreditation is new to my experience. But anything that helps educate and bring together the world community is worth supporting.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It is significant for so many young people! Most of them (especially in other countries) would not be able to afford a traditional college education. Thanks, Bernadette, for your input!

  3. Deborah Todd says:

    Great article!

  4. Interesting! What an amazing concept! I have not met anyone so far who has taken advantage of these opportunities. I’d love to hear from someone who has.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I think this appeals to Millennials more than anyone else. But there is no age limit. From what I gather, the courses lead heavily toward tech. That’s not to say there aren’t any seniors who would be interested! (Not me!)

  5. Janis says:

    I wouldn’t be interested in “attending” online classes for accreditation, but I would love to take a few courses just for the love of learning. MOOC gives us even more reason to assure that we provide internet access and preserve net neutrality for everyone.

  6. Cathy says:

    I know or have heard many of my peers and above taking these courses…some have had great success, mostly because they wanted to do them…

    Of course, if you only want to expand your horizons there are many such short blurbs like uTube or even something like Craftsy that offer quite a bit more in the “crafty line” nowadays…

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Cathy, there are so may avenues to learning now. When we were younger, there were books and the radio, that was it!

      • Cathy says:

        true and what our parents thought were best for us…I remember Mother having difficulties with girl/mthly things – especially when she hadn’t told me certain things, & I had to come home early from a church camp – she then got me some “booklets” – which really didn’t explain well…

        then there were her semi-missionary-religious books – I still have them, they are fascinating to think that was all I needed to know…

        As I grew older, I realised a lot about my schooling – which although I can seem to “foot it with folk” there are huge amount of gaps. I fell through those gaps because of my “disabilities” – I don’t think my parents had imagined i would live much past a certain age – they died in my early 20s 🙁

        • Still the Lucky Few says:

          It’s tough to lose your parents that early, Cathy. But the human spirit is very resilient, and you, like I, have had a long life. I had to smile when I read about those missionary books! I lived in a remote area, and missionaries used to visit every summer in a ‘traveling mission”, and leave all sorts of booklets and literature my sisters and I couldn’t possibly understand. A different time, for sure!

  7. Karen Moore says:

    Great article! I am a potter and receive much of my ongoing education from online videos and lectures from artists all around the world. Last semester I attended a $500
    Course at the University. Although hands on education has its own function, the Internet has provided me with better and more economical learning experience.
    My grandson is finishing high school and his first two years of college online.
    It is a New World!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I am delighted to receive your comment! It confirms what I believe to be the brave new face of education. I took my 7 years of university the hard way, driving thousands of miles to classes in a larger city, boarding at a residence all summer (while teaching during the winter term). I am so happy younger people will have an easier time of it! Thanks, Karen!

  8. Joared says:

    Wonder how readily employers are to recognize those educated online and accept since accreditation of institutions has been important? If courses with a traditional school expect that’s not an issue but often new schools popping up might not be as viable when I think of all the commercial schools that have closed i.e. TrumpmUniv.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      It’s a whole new landscape for students and employers alike. I imagine that, just as with many other products, consumer generated reviews regarding online universities will be springing up, if they haven’t already. These can also be found online. (Yelp, Angie’s List, Local are examples of online reviews on other subjects) Maybe someone among my readers will be able to recommend sites which specialize in reviews in the online educational arena. Sorry, Joared, I can’t take the time to research the questions you have raised today, but they are important issues, and I will bookmark them for another time!

  9. Cookin Mum says:

    Wonderful Article! I think it may be time for this old bird to stretch her wings again. Last year I went to culinary college and graduated with honors. It makes me think I can go back for some other upgrades 🙂

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      You inspire me! It’s great to have all of these options, which were never available only a few years ago. The best to you in your endeavors!

  10. As always, a wonderful and informative post. I live in a retirement community, in the Phoenix metro area, that is surrounded by many other retirement communities. Life Long Learning is a hot commodity here. When I joined a (brick & mortar) Life Long Learning program last year, signing up for a number of classes, I was introduced to “Universal Class” an online learning and continuing education service. The service was free, although we had to be members of “RISE” (our program) in order to participate. Unfortunately, I was a swamped with a couple of writing classes, and didn’t take advantage of “Universal Class”, but your post has me thinking about it again. What an interesting world in which we live. Thank you for your post.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      I’m blown away by comments like yours, Margie! When I first considered writing about technology, and what it brings us, younger people I know scoffed, saying my age group would never be interested. So glad you are all proving them wrong! I believe Boomers and older people are incredibly ‘with it’, and connected to what is going on in the world today. Keep at it, Margie!

  11. Lynne Spreen says:

    “my age group would never be interested” – HA! I’m getting ready to teach my 91-year-old mother to google stuff. She has a curious mind and she’s tired of being left behind. The stereotype of old people not being technological is fading as tools become more accessible. About 3 years ago, my then-67-yo husband agreed to try using a laptop. Now we read the “paper” every morning together, both of us on our little cheap chromebooks. He has found a world of things that interest him: Amazon.com for books, all kinds of travel websites, etc. In fact, he’s now addicted to his Kindle Paperwhite. I’m so happy for him, and proud of my contribution in this. I realize I didn’t respond to your post, but your comment at 11:37 got me fired up!

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Made me LOL, Lynne! As I look at my condo neighbors, and other older people I know, I think you could draw a defining line around people who are connected to tech, and people who are not—the people who use tech comfortably just seem to be more alert. I could be wrong, since there are many other ways to be involved. The stereotype is fading, as more and more seniors are drawn in, so soon it will be a non-issue. One of my little ‘oddities’ is my devotion to books, rather than a Kindle, but I’m finally admitting that my eyes see the screen better than print in books, so that will be my next purchase, no doubt! Nice to hear from you, Lynne!

      • Cathy says:

        one of the main reasons (well there are other main reasons) is how you can find out all kinds of things, not even things that other people want. I have been using it a lot of lately to find out about books I want to read – order from my local library system to order them to come to my closest brick/mortar place…
        I dip in and out of “notifications for various sites” – so that means I read a variety of articles.
        yes I look at our national paper daily – just the bits that take my fancy…

        • Still the Lucky Few says:

          I’ve almost abandoned the daily paper. My husband likes to read it at the breakfast table, and I scan some headlines and leave the rest. The internet has so much more. I can hardly keep up!

  12. Yes, it’s about time! The present university system is sick, and part of the problem is the idea that everyone should go to college. We also need the option of good technical training. Fortunately the huge debts students wind up with is shaking things up.

    • Still the Lucky Few says:

      Well, everyone that wants to, should go to college. Wants to learn, that is. Many young people head into it, reluctantly, because they don’t know what else to do. Which may not be such a bad thing, since being with intelligent people, in a challenging framework, may be exactly the right place to find out what you want to do! At any rate, online education makes it accessible to more people world wide, and that’s a good thing!

      • Cathy says:

        maybe it’s not a bad thing to try it out…but now with having to pay top $$ to go…it seems extraordinary that Universities are using sometimes completely out of date information…some of the professionals there are completely out of touch; many of them appear to me to “up themselves” and actually are not as intelligent as one imagines…

        I know I should have pulled out at the end of my first year, but I sailed on … thinking that it would get better; I did finally get most coveted (for me anyway) BA.

        I did learn a few things like how to research which has been useful but when I think of all the useless information in my brain, not sure it was worth the $$ I still need to pay back to the government!

        The original intent was to get employed but that ended up in a long story that some of you might know about!

        (current study is funded by fee-scholarship…)

        • Still the Lucky Few says:

          Congratulations on getting your BA, a great achievement, whether you do it at a campus, night courses, or online!

  13. Yeah, Another Blogger says:

    You know, I wasn’t very aware of any of this before. Thanks for all of this info. Another revolution has arrived.

  14. Open learning is a welcome change to the traditional brick and mortar schooling that makes it difficult for so many adults to return back to further their education whilst struggling to earn a livelihood.
    This broadens people’s horizon and instills hope.

  15. maddy says:

    I think the revolution is really for the millions out there around the world who have mobile phones and not education. Now they can choose to educate themselves. Many people who don’t have a toilet, do have a mobile phone.
    Will this mean the death of the 5 year university degree that puts our children in debt?

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