The idea of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) continues to attract attention in the education press and popular media. As the idea evolves, we gradually are getting a better idea of where MOOCs might fit into the broader online learning environment and, indeed, what role they might play in the transformation of higher education as we adapt to the realities of life in a global information society. In December, I posted some thoughts on where MOOCs might fit into the Land Grant mission. Today, I want to look at them from a slightly different perspective.
There is one area where I want to be very clear: The idea that a single MOOC should replace general education course taught at almost every college/university in the U.S. is misguided, at best. This has been part of the MOOC discussion since the earliest courses came out. It is an idea that has been around technology-based education since at least the 1980s, when PBS moved to satellite distribution and Walter Annenberg gave funds to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to create nationally distributed tele-courses, creating the idea that one great course with fantastic video lectures could ensure that every student got a good education in that topic. But that's not how our educational system works. We have more than 3,000 institution of higher education in the United States. While many of them may use the same text to teach "Introduction to Sociology" or "Introduction to World History" or whatever, the strength of the system is that each institution has its own faculty members who teach the course using their own syllabus, each drawing on their own research and experience, and each responding to the individual needs and interests of their students, whether they be on campus or online. This creates a kind of butterfly effect as students move into different classes and different majors, taking with them the nuances of their own experiences in these courses. The resulting diversity is one of the strengths of the system. We don't need--and, indeed, should avoid the homogenization of the curriculum by relying on MOOCs.
So, then, what do we need? I see three areas where investment in MOOCs might have the greatest payoff for not just for the institutions that offer them, but for society in general.
The first of these I mentioned in my December 2012 posting on MOOCs: MOOCs provide a powerful new tool for creating learning communities around research and technology transfer. Over the years, I've seen the importance of academic conferences in disseminating the results of research and creating new discussions among researchers and between researchers and those who benefit from the results of their work. Two great examples from Penn State's conferencing work in Outreach are (1) a series of conferences that brought together astronomers and statisticians and that eventually resulted in the creation of a new discipline, Astro-Statistics, and (2) the annual autism conference, which brings together a huge community of researchers, practitioners, and autistic children and their families. MOOCs have great potential to more quickly and more broadly disseminate research findings and to create communities among diverse populations that have an interest in applying research. It is a potentially powerful tool for academic outreach and engagement.
A second potential role is to build new pathways between higher education and schooling. Currently in the U.S., about 39 percent of high school graduates go on to college. The U.S. Department of Education has set a goal of increasing that to 60 percent by 2020--what they estimate the country will need to thrive in the information economy. To get there, we will need to dramatically increase the percentage of high school students who are prepared to go to college. MOOCs can help by providing a means by which higher education institutions can share content with high school teachers. Imagine, for instance, a MOOC on high school chemistry. Science Education faculty in our universities could develop video and computer-based instructional materials on critical science concepts at all K-12 levels. These would be made available to teachers via a MOOC that would also contain sample lesson plans and other resources that the teachers would need. Then, it would also serve as a meeting place where teachers could share their experiences in using the materials, get advice from both higher education faculty and peer teachers, and share materials that they have developed locally to contextualize the materials available via the MOOC. The result: a teaching community that would help even small, poor districts ensure that their students have access to high-quality learning.
We did this sort of thing back in the 1970s and 1980s through public television. Penn State's public TV station worked with Dr. Paul Welliver in the University's College of Education to create "Science for the Seventies," a video series that captured key science concepts for elementary school students. Dr. Welliver and his colleagues also tried to create a community of teachers who could share lesson plans, etc., but the lack of a medium for exchange made that difficult. MOOCs offer a very fresh way to create this kind of teaching/sharing community to address important educational needs.
A third potential use of MOOCs relates to the new demographics of our world. Today, Americans are living well into their 70s and 80s, but still retiring at 65 or earlier. In his landmark book, The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin noted that now need to prepare older adults for life after work--ideally, a third act of life where experienced adults can apply their talents and experiences in the social sector, helping improve life in their communities. In this arena MOOCs offer an interesting opportunity to bring older adults together with social sector organizations and university faculty to help prepare them for productive after-retirement contributions. As with the other applications, a key element is not just the transfer of knowledge, but the creation of communities.
I hope these three examples illustrate the true potential of MOOCs as tools for community-building and engagement around research, technology transfer, and cross-sector partnerships.