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Behind the Hype: Understanding MOOCs

Updated 10/23/2023

If there were a competition for the hot buzzword of the year, MOOC would certainly be in the running for top honors. MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course and both the term and the idea have proliferated wildly throughout higher ed recently. But what’s behind all the buzz and what permanent role, if any, will MOOCs play in the ever-evolving learning landscape?

Fundamentally, a MOOC is an online course that’s offered for free to anyone with an Internet connection. Typically, a fee is charged only if a participant seeks to receive college credit for the course through an institution, but credit-based study is not a requirement. The goal behind these types of courses is to expand a college’s or university’s reach from a finite number of tuition-paying students who are geographically close, to a nearly infinite number of distance learners scattered across the globe.

Benefits for Students

Offers direct access to learning. In our information-saturated world, MOOCs allow participants to anchor their learning process around a structure, however loose it may be. Learners can access courses from virtually anywhere and tap into the vast sea of information to augment their work, help other participants, share ideas, facilitate discussion, and expand their communities.

Promotes active engagement. MOOCs work best when everyone participates in the learning process. All student work is shared for the benefit of everyone. Rather than competitors, MOOC participants are collaborators who benefit from finding and mining pockets of information together, sharing insights and personal experiences, and creating an environment where learning is social and dynamic.

Links people and creates durable networks. The open collaboration that happens during the course is designed to last well beyond it. Participants and facilitators alike develop networks based on shared interests and can leverage those associations throughout their careers.

Provides a flexible and independent learning structure. MOOCs aren’t organized around traditional assignments. Instead, participants are responsible for engaging with learning materials on their own, sharing perceptions with fellow participants, exploring the web for additional relevant material and, essentially, self-directing their learning with the help of a course guide or facilitator. In this way, participants become advocates for their own education and are able to add value autonomously.

Encourages and supports lifelong learning. Because of their easy and direct access, fee-free design, flat structure, and socially-driven nature, MOOCs can be powerful tools for promoting lifelong learning in a networked world. The communities built around shared interests drive participation and engagement —after all, what better set of evangelists for a new course than a tight and communicative group of motivated learners? When they work as designed, MOOCs leverage the strength of interpersonal relationships to encourage learning over years and decades, instead of just terms and semesters.

Changing Roles for Instructors

As with other new learning technologies and methods, MOOCs challenge the business-as-usual approach for higher ed instructors and administrators. Teaching is no longer just about the simple dissemination of content. Rather, the role is morphing into one more focused on thoughtful assessment, personal feedback, broad skills development, and successful outcomes. MOOCs are echoing a louder and much broader educational call for more facilitation and far less indoctrination.

The Role of MOOCs in Blended Learning

As part of the larger movement toward blended learning, surely MOOCs will continue to evolve. Exactly how they will look in 5 or 10 years is anyone’s guess, but it’s clear that the fundamentals will remain the same. Students will be drawn to and motivated by learning environments that allow them more control over their time, the pace of their learning, what educational tools they use, and the way success is measured.

Customization and personalization are the driving forces behind all blended learning tools and MOOCs are no different. For schools that are looking to stay relevant in a fast-changing educational landscape, MOOCs aren’t the only way to go, but there’s a valuable lesson to be learned in the very real benefits that lay behind their headlines.

Enrollment Builders consults on a host of teaching tools and methods for institutions of all sizes. If you’d like to explore how MOOCs or other web-based instruction can benefit your school, we can help. To learn more about what we do, call us at 513-518-7824, or request information here.