“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to the classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill. And I’ve seen wonderland.”–Sebastian Thrun, Founder of Udacity
The red pill refers here to launching massive open online courses (MOOCs) for which an email address is the only requirement for admission. Thrun actually gave up his tenure at Stanford to start Udacity, a provider of MOOCs in computer science, physics and mathematics so far. Other folks from Stanford teamed up to create Coursera, which offers courses in a larger variety of disciplines, including medicine, song writing and poetry.
These MOOCs have been immensely popular with millions of students from all over the world signing up just this year. In fact, last week the New York Times called 2012 the “Year of the MOOC“! Participants do not get credit quite yet from completing courses though, but because MOOCs have been such a tsunami in higher education, some form of recognition will eventually need to be given to those who pass courses. Giving out certificates will be challenging when identity cannot be easily controlled online (watch Sebastian Thrun as he discusses that point and more in a Charlie Rose interview from last April). In any case, it should be interesting to watch what will happen when all of a sudden 100,000 of people get credit from Stanford, Harvard or MIT every year!
One might think that online courses will not replace the more intimate and personalized experience at your favorite campus. It’s definitely a challenge for MOOCs, as any learning experience typically benefits from being personalized. That’s why for example MOOCs have not been taking off so much at Oxford or Cambridge in the UK. It’s quite difficult to transpose a 1,000 year old culture of teaching small groups in colleges onto an online free-for-all platform!
The vice-chancellor of one of the top British universities even said “You can download lot’s or Rolling Stones online. But there’s nothing quite like going to the concert”. For sure. But how often do you actually get to go to a Rolling Stones concert and what do you do the rest of the time? “I’m a research nurse”, posted a woman from Oklahoma, “I wanted to go to Stanford when I graduated high school, but stuff happened and that didn’t work out. Forty years later, here I am.”
Free opportunities for a top-class higher education for all, worldwide, 24/7. That’s what MOOCs are about. It’s the combination between the ‘M’ and the first ‘O’ that is the trick. And it’s just the beginning.
Understandably, most universities feel challenged by unfair competition — not everyone can afford professors of Stanford caliber. But after the buzz of MOOCs, comes the time to assess their effectiveness at improving quality teaching while reducing costs. Several public universities in Maryland have received $1.4 million from the Gates foundation to study just that. “Over the next 18 months, the University System of Maryland will serve as a test bed for various online or hybrid courses, including Coursera, edX, and possibly other MOOCs, in a variety of subject areas on different campuses,” wrote Debbie Robinson, a spokeswoman for the Gates Foundation, as quoted in a news post by Inside Higher Ed a few days ago.
Can’t wait 18 months to see what will come out of this! Meanwhile, think about doing your own experiment and trying out one of these MOOCs – always good to see for ourselves!