Monday, May 6, 2013

Massive Open Online Courses: Massive Threat or Open Invitation? Part 1 of 2

This 2-part blog feature comes from Guest Blogger, Michael J. Badolato, Ed.D., Dean of Academic Technology and was originally featured in NSCC Technology Across the Curriculum's annual publication:  Mousetales.

When I first encountered the word “MOOCs” a little over a year ago, I envisioned subterranean creatures lying in wait to conquer our world, or perhaps another multi-user online dungeon game.  A recent set of articles (see Laura Pappano's “The Year of the MOOC" and Kevin Carey's “Show Me Your Badge") featured on the cover of the November 2012 New York Times Education Life supplement presented a white rabbit along with the headline “Massive and multiplying, the latest word in online learning: MOOC.”  While the latter image may be far less menacing, it is no less compelling given the seemingly sudden appearance and proliferation of MOOCs across the higher education landscape.  

On the surface, MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are exactly what the term implies: an online course that is massive in terms of sheer enrollment, potentially thousands at any given time, and open, in that anyone can attend regardless of academic background, at no cost and with no official registration required.

Upon closer examination of MOOCs, there is something in them that is familiar in a manner not unlike so many ‘next big things’ we have all encountered.  Yet, their very scale and accessibility suggests implications for altering the structures and relationships of our educational systems as we have come to define them.  It is common experience, if not historical record, that whenever a new technology is first integrated into the educational practice of the day, be it chalkboard or circuit board, some disruption occurs while the innovation gradually settles into the mainstream.   Communities of practice, within a single institution or distributed across the field, establish rubrics, standards, and other structures from which to base development and assess quality.  The innovation is adopted, brought under control and integrated within an agreed upon framework. Final analysis results in acceptance, rejection or revision and the practice moves onward.

In the midst of these processes, technology in education has come to know several forms. Many colleges and universities, NSCC among them, have been developing their online learning practice and capacity for the better part of two decades. Classroom delivery, increasingly influenced by what has been learned through online practice, has also become richer and more complex in its ability to accommodate a greater variety of content and interaction.  The recent influx of mobile and wireless devices promises to take these interactions to a more immediate, untethered and personal level.  Thus, the very infrastructure of our educational delivery system is becoming distributed across an increasing number of channels while pedagogies strive to adapt.  Content for this emerging infrastructure is being prolifically developed as the means for its production and adoption becomes more accessible, less costly and, ironically, less technical.

A recent trend that has been born of these possibilities is the Open Content Movement.  Among the growing number of open content developers and distributers are individual teachers working through collaborative online entities such as the Open Education Resources (OER) Commons, as well as non-profit organizations such as Kahn Academy, a producer of internet video micro-lectures currently in its seventh year of operation. Several renowned institutions have also sponsored open content projects, such as MIT’s Open Courseware and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative.  Where the products of these initiatives have been adopted, they have supplemented, and in some instances replaced, traditional texts and other materials.  The educational publishing industry, however, has also responded by offering supplemental materials at no additional charge to maintain interest in their inventory.   These resources are not typically organized into whole courses and the interactions that surround them, but are offered in a format known in educational technology jargon as Reusable Learning Objects (RLOs), which are typically digital chunks and snippets of materials and curriculum guides offered in a variety of file types. They can be used as strategic parts of a larger course or curriculum, or as learning experiences that can often stand on their own.

MOOCs are essentially an extension of the open content concept, presented as an entire online course or as a series of related lectures with roots in programs offered at actual higher education institutions. As such, there are currently three recognized major MOOC producers.  The MIT/Harvard collaboration edX is an outgrowth of their Open Courseware Initiative, providing the next level  in open content to enable an experience more akin to a fully functioning online course and if desired, a process for gaininga university-backed certificate, albeit no direct MIT credit. Another university initiative spin-off is Udacity, which began life as a series of free computer science courses offered through Stanford University.  Coursera, a for-profit company founded by Stanford University computer science professors but not affiliated with that institution, was conceived as a hub for MOOCs developed at several participating institutions and as a venue for offering credit and certificates (for a fee) as well as integrated support services. The American Council onEducation recently approved five Coursera courses for college credit.

Khan Academy’s stated mission is “… the goal of changing education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”  Proponents of MOOCs, and open content in general, laud this very openness as a decentralized and democratic opportunity for access to what they view as a quality higher education experience. Doubters, for much the same reasons, are concerned about the potential disintermediation from the oversight of higher education institutions and their faculty. Both sides of the debate see the potential for alternative credentials outside of the traditional degree sequence, though each side obviously has a different opinion as to the relative merits of such an outcome.

This ends part 1--stay on the lookout for part 2, where Michael address specifically what's being done at community colleges in Massachusetts.