One of the highlights of the recent Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning was a keynote address by Daphne Koller of Coursera, one of the major platforms for Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Her presentation focused on the vision of MOOCs as opening access to education for a global audience who may otherwise not be able to learn about a wide range of subjects. She also described features of Coursera that provide a level of learner engagement that is not discussed much in the media. An example is the ability of students to review and grade each other’s papers. Along the way, she emphasized that Coursera’s MOOCs are not designed for college credit, but that they do provide access to learning opportunities. She noted that, while Coursera had no plans to charge for courses or to grant credit, they were starting to offer learners, for a small fee, the equivalent of a “certificate of completion.” While Koller didn’t mention it, such a certification could make it easier for students who complete MOOCs to apply their learning through credit for life experience or credit by exam procedures.
While MOOCs may emerge as primarily a means of globally extending content, there seems to be good reason to think that they may also emerge as a way of creating and sustaining learning communities. As such, they could be an extremely valuable way to re-envision the Extension mission in a global information society.
For example, many land grant universities have made a commitment to helping small business operators develop the skills they need to be successful. This is critical in many communities, where small businesses are major employers. Historically, this work has been done through occasional workshops and small conferences. However, in the online environment, we can easily envision an engagement MOOC environment that would include:
· Video and computer-based OERs that focus on critical small business leadership skills, the latest research in the field, case studies of successful small business innovations, policy studies, etc.
· Online readings and assignments related to each of the OERs that give students—current and aspiring small business operators—the opportunity to explore the issues in more detail and to apply them to their own situations.
· Shared review of student responses, providing an opportunity for enrolled students to explore each other’s ideas and share responses, in addition to faculty feedback.
· An ongoing learning community, allowing small business operators and faculty to share experiences and innovations as they implement ideas gathered during the formal course.
A similar pattern—publishing of OERs, engagement of learners around the OERs, and structured sharing of experiences and insights among participants—could be applied to other communities historically served by university extension educators. These include small community governments, police officers, social service providers, agriculture professionals, and a wide range of civil society professionals and community volunteers.
In addition, this environment could be used to create new relationships between universities and employers in specific industries in which the university is already engaged through teaching and research. Engagement MOOCs can be used to maintain contact with recent graduates as they move into jobs in selected industries, for instance, or to translate research findings for industry practitioners. Historically, such services tended to be organized on a state-by-state basis, through land grant universities. The online environment supports a much greater opportunity for universities to share expertise across state and even national boundaries, greatly increasing the cost-benefit of producing OERs. As such, MOOCs become practical opportunities for new and powerful a academic communities across traditional institutional boundaries and to build new relationships between faculty and industries for research, technology transfer, and professional education.
The MOOC is still a very new concept within the online learning universe (which itself has existed for only two decades). Early innovators in the MOOC arena tended to focus on extending large undergraduate courses to informal learning communities. It may well be that, in the final analysis, online learning as it emerged over the past two decades will continue to be the best way to extend formal credit instruction to a global student population, while MOOCs—which have already demonstrated their ability to attract global audiences to informal learning opportunities—will allow higher education institutions to re-envision their nonformal continuing and extension mission to serve the informal learning needs of a constantly expanding community of professionals, civil servants, and community volunteers.