MOOCs and the future of global literacy

Note: This is the original, unedited essay I submitted for an EdX course.

Despite its advantages, the classroom teaching does not meets the demands of the students today, leave alone those who do not have access to quality education. In the last few years MOOCs have helped many people with quality education and will continue to bring in a revolution in the online learning space; it is where the future of education lies.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), as the name suggests, are courses which have open access and are available to unlimited number of people, that is, there no limit on class-size. These courses are accessible to anyone who has access to Internet, and in most cases are free of cost.

The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island and Senior Research Fellow Bryan Alexander of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education for the course named “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” (having shortcode CCK08).

To get you the idea about its massiveness, CCK08 consisted of 25 tuition-paying students in Extended Education at the University of Manitoba and over 2200 online students from the general public who attended the course for free. There are, however, contentions about CCK08 being the first MOOC. Many people contend that the first MOOC was the one that Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun created for their course on Artificial Intelligence at the Stanford University which drew more than 160,000 participants.

MOOCs are popular among netizens, and thus massive, primarily because of the high quality of education provided and the fee, which is zero. Top universities like MIT, Harvard, UC Berkeley have come together to form a consortium called Edx which offers free MOOCs along with certificates to those who successfully complete the course, thus giving students value beyond just knowledge acquisition. Besides EdX, there are others like Coursera, Udacity etc.

MOOCs are an amalgamation of online, electronic and distance learning concepts. With Internet access, anyone can take the courses offered by leading MOOCs platforms like EdX, Coursera, Udacity etc.

Each course offered as MOOC is a combination of electronic textbooks, video lectures, interactive quizzes, exercises and homework assignments. All the data including the course material is in electronic form and stored on servers which are accessible using a computer or mobile. There are also fora for peer communication which allow for easier interaction and aid discussions related to the course.

MOOCs are similar to e-Learning with the difference being that it is not necessary to have an Internet connection in e-learning while in online learning and MOOCs, it is. There is no peer interaction in e-learning which is a key component that has made MOOCs so successful. By enabling students to answer questions and doubts raised by their peers, MOOCs are able to compensate for the course-faculty’s inability to answer and attend individual students problems because of their massive scale and reach.

E-Learning in general, including MOOCs also have a common shortcoming. Even though it is fairly easy to change the content of the course assignments, quizzes or exercises being mostly text-based, a change in a video lecture even by a sentence requires a lot of work. However, to make up for this frailty, the focus of developers working on the MOOCs platforms has already shifted to video editing tools to allow easier creation and editing.

MOOCs positively differ from classroom learning in terms of flexibility they offer to students. Students are allowed to read material, answer quizzes, exercises and assignments at their own pace. The students, though, still have to stick to the broader schedule laid down by the course instructors, but within that schedule, they are free to work at their own pace. This is a huge benefit as it allows for flexible learning times.

At the moment, MOOCs do however lack the real taste of classroom learning, but only to certain extent where it is necessary to have physical presence, like in lab experiments. However, increasingly, the platforms are making up for these shortcomings and a prominent example is from Texas University course on embedded systems wherein the students are shipped a kit for a small price and can perform their own experiments at home. At the same time, to further the learning experience and eliminate such costs for kits altogether, platforms are focussing on virtual simulations and labs to allow students work online by simulating the lab experience online using software.

Another key challenge before MOOCs is to offer rigorous and challenging exams at such massive scale. Since these top-notch universities offer certificates, they are expected to maintain the level of competitiveness in their exams. MOOC platforms are proactively working to address these issues as well with EdX and Udacity now offering proctored exams.

In a recent seminar, Andrew Ng, the cofounder of Coursera and the director of the Stanford AI Lab spoke shared one of these shortcomings of MOOCs and explained how his team met the challenge.
He explained how in order to tackle the issue of limited manpower for developing the course platform that allows wider inclusion of interactive widgets which different types of courses may need in their courses, Coursera came up with idea of APIs to allow the course-creating universities to plug-in the desired functionality for their course themselves. This, alongside easing the programming burden on the Coursera allowed more specific and interactive tools for course as per the requirement of the individual course instructors and their pedagogy.

As an example, Andrew cited a software developed by RICE university for a computer programming course, which can be plugged into the Coursera’s platform; it allows for a computer code to be written and run directly into the web browser. Instead of juggling with various software, this allows for more focus on the concept of the course than they software to use.

Another example came from Anant Agarwal, the president of Edx, who believes that education has not changed in last 500 years and that the last innovation in education was the printing press which introduced us to the textbooks. He believes that we can transform education in quality, scale and access using technology.

To support his belief, Anant shares an example of MIT course named “Circuits and Electronics”, which began a year ago and had 155,000 students from 162 countries. This number which is bigger than the total alumni of the MIT in its 150 year history. 7200 student successfully completed the course which again it a big number and Anant observes that if he teaches two semesters each year, he will take 40 years to teach as many students.

To further his belief about the use of technology, Anant shares an example of his teenager daughter whom he observed to be more responsive to his text messages to push the perspective that the current generation is very comfortable with online technology and his belief that we should embrace it instead of fighting it.

To give us an idea of how MOOCs have helped enrich even the regular classroom experience, he exemplified by sharing the story of two HS teachers at Sant High School in Mongolia who “flipped” their classrooms by allowing students to read and do exercises at home and then coming into the classroom to interact and solve problems together in groups. This blended learning fell the failure rates from 40% to 9%, which is remarkable.

And if you are wondering how an innovation at such a massive scale can be sustained, then make no mistake. The MOOCs have many innovative models of business in place. Take for instance, even though most of the platforms offer free courses, a verified certificate comes at a cost. This allows these platforms of massive learning to collect revenues and invest them back. Some of these platforms are also licensing their content to other institutions to generate revenues.

While MOOCs do suffer from many shortcomings, the platforms however are proactively working to meet them and strengthen the overall educational experience of the students as well the instructors. Given these facts, it is clear that MOOCs are going to have a huge impact on the future of global literary. Those who have taken MOOCs are astonished at the level of quality education they receive and are equally amazed at the price, which is zero. It is clear that MOOCs are here to stay and might as well be a fundamental innovation long impending in the educational domain that may drastically change how our future generations are educated.