CS50x – Introduction to Computer Science I, an MOOC from Harvard at edX, had a total enrollment of 150,349 students. However, only 1,388 (0.9%) students were able to complete the course.
(Source: CS50 blog)
(Source: CS50 blog)
Massive Open Online Course, abbreviated as MOOC, has been heralded as the next big thing in education. It offers students an opportunity to learn from some of the best professors of the top Universities around the world. Although MOOC is still at a nascent stage, the overwhelming response it has garnered worldwide can be a sign of the times to come. However, in spite of getting widespread acclaim and acceptance (The New York Times dubbed 2012 as ‘The Year of MOOC’), there are certain challenges associated with it. The lack of accreditation of MOOCs is a concern that has been raised by many skeptics. Also, it has been seen that the difference between the number of students joining an MOOC, and the actual number of students completing it, is enormous. These concerns have raised certain questions on whether it is really the future of education around the world, or just another passing trend. Before we take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of MOOCs, let us quickly see how it became the buzzword in the last couple of years.
A Brief History of MOOC
Distance learning is an alternative to people who want to acquire higher studies, but are not able to due to geographical or monetary reasons. In its initial phase, distance learning was generally carried out through snail mails. After the advent of radio and television, there was a remarkable pedagogical change. But, what perhaps changed the whole structure of distance learning was the invention of personal computers and the World Wide Web. Students could now get all the information on a real-time basis, and connect with their fellows and teachers. Realizing that the Internet had opened up new areas of imparting education, many educators began to launch free online courses to mass audiences.
Speaking strictly about MOOCs, the first contributors were Stephen Downes and George Siemens of the University of Manitoba, Canada. But what really brought MOOCs in the mainstream consciousness was the ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ course, offered by two Stanford Professors – Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. A whopping 160,000 students from 190 countries signed up for the course, and a new method of teaching and learning was born. MOOC was massive, online, and open, and it promised to present an opportunity to millions of students to learn from the most renowned names from Ivy League colleges. Thrun and Norvig streamlined the process of MOOC by creating Udacity, a website which provides information about the upcoming courses, and allows students to sign up for them. Two more companies, Coursera and edX also started their operations in 2012, each offering free online courses from some of the most prestigious Universities of America.
Although the concept of MOOC looks absolutely fascinating, there are certain challenges that need to be addressed if it has to truly become the next big thing in the education sector. In the following paragraphs, we will understand the viewpoint of the opponents and proponents of MOOCs, and get a hang of its pros and cons.
Free: One of the most important factors for a lot of aspiring students is whether or not they can afford the high tuition fees required for embarking on a course. With MOOCs, all you need is a PC with an Internet connection. Most of the MOOCs don’t charge a single penny for their courses, although one may need to pay a small fee for getting the completion certificate.
Quality: There are many observers who ask whether MOOCs would have been as much popular if Universities like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, etc., hadn’t been the ones at the forefront of this revolutionary change in education. The reason why so many students sign up for these programs is because they know that they will be taught by esteemed and renowned professors. Many people are skeptical about taking an online course, owing to the poor quality of teaching and training material, but when the best in the business are teaching you for free, there isn’t much a student can complain about.
Opportunity: A lot of students around the world dream about getting the opportunity to enroll in an Ivy League University. However, due to stiff competition and limited number of admissions, only a select few are able to gain admission to these Universities. MOOCs offer an opportunity for these aspiring students to realize their dream, as they get the chance to enroll for a courses offered by these Universities.
No Formal Requirements: All MOOCs required from a student is connectivity to the Internet, so that one can access the course material. There is no age bar, or formal qualification, that one needs to have before signing up for a course. This feature of MOOCs makes it an appealing prospect for working professionals and the elderly, who want to learn new skills and enhance their knowledge.
Cooperation: Colleges and Universities around the world celebrate the diversity that they have on their campuses. With MOOCs, the same sense of multiculturalism is bred on the message boards and forums, where hundreds of thousands of students exchange ideas with each other, and discuss their viewpoints. The fact that you are not competing, but collaborating with fellow students fosters a sense of togetherness and cooperation.
Non Accreditation: The challenge with MOOCs currently is with their non-accreditation. After putting in hard work and effort in completing a course, students do not get academic credit, and there is no official recognition of the same. Efforts are being made to consider MOOCs as college credits, but overall, somebody signing up should not pin his hopes on getting some credits from it.
Overcrowding: In every University, the faculty-to-student ratio is an important parameter, and it is used to gauge the level of attention a professor will be able to provide to each student. When there are fewer students in the classroom, a professor can work on the strengths and weaknesses of each student, and provide him with support and motivation. The structure of MOOCs makes it impossible for a professor to pay his undivided attention to each single student, as a result of which, many students may get the feeling that they are ‘on their own’.
High Attrition: Signing up is as easy as it gets, but religiously studying to complete the course is a different thing altogether. According to statistics, only 10% of students who start an MOOC are able to complete it. It is also being reported that interest wanes in an MOOC over a period of time, and many quit before even competing their first assignment.
Lack of Motivation: MOOCs are free; there is no financial penalty or loss associated with not completing them. Also, as discussed before, majority of colleges do not grant them the status of college credits. Completing an MOOC may add a skill to your resume, but it won’t make or break a job offer. As such, there is no real motivation to complete it. If we go by the current trends, everyone is whimsically signing up for one MOOC or the other, without thinking whether they will able to devote time to it. Unlike college courses, where the prospect of becoming employable drives many students to complete a course, there is a lack of motivation in completing an MOOC.
Unreliable Grading Structure: Consider yourself to be a student who has submitted a creative writing assignment for one the MOOCs that you have undertaken. According to the requirements of the assignment, you have used irony, metaphor, simile, and humor, to the best of your capability. You are hopeful that your assignment will be acclaimed by your tutor, and vehemently discussed on the message boards. But instead of your tutor, or an assistant, or for that matter, at least a human grading your assignment, all you get is a computerized rating for your work, done with the help of a software. Grading the assignment of thousands of students is a major challenge in MOOCs, and although the help of software can be taken in the case of grading multiple-choice questions, grading research papers, dissertations, essays, etc., remains a major challenge.
These were some of the major advantages and challenges associated with MOOCs. At the moment, it is still at its initial stage, and a lot of experimentation is being carried out. If we look at it from a purely academic angle, the system offers what it promises, i.e. education of the highest standard. If somebody truly wants to learn about something without thinking about whether it will earn him some credits, or add something to his resume, MOOCs are the best option to consider. However, for those who want MOOCs to do more for them, apart from helping them in their academic pursuits, I guess, they need to wait until policy-makers arrive on a decision that is in the best interest of everyone.