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.”