The potential for MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, to fundamentally change the realm of higher education is clear: students worldwide can take courses and earn certificates from top-tier universities for free.
The spring of 2012 saw the launch of EdX, a joint program between MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley. Coursera, a collaboration between Stanford, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania and University of Michigan, began offering MOOCs at this time as well, and many universities have joined the network. The two platforms joined with Udacity, also from Stanford, in offering top-tier MOOCs to students across the globe.
As more institutions join the MOOC movement, employers are increasingly accepting the certificates earned through an MOOC course. A student can now select a series of courses that directly align with his or her career goals, saving money and acquiring a high-caliber education at the same time. For example, a student interested in artificial intelligence could start with an introduction to computer programming course from MIT, followed by an introduction to artificial intelligence course from UC Berkeley and even add on a course in Neural Networks for Machine Learning from the University of Toronto.
In spite of the rise in popularity , MOOCs still face challenges in student engagement and assessment.
The average enrollment in MOOCs is 100,000 students and completion rates range between 5%-10%. In a recent EdX course, in which 120,000 students enrolled initially, 10,000 students completed the midterm exam (New York Times, May 2012).
Computer science and mathematics courses tend to dominate MOOC catalogues: homework and test answers are easy to correct using computer algorithms. Courses in the humanities pose an assessment challenge: essays must be graded either by peer-review, crowdsourcing or natural-language programs.
If these challenges are overcome, MOOCs will likely became a mainstay of global higher education.
However, the power of MOOCs to offer basic education to global populations remains untapped. As top-tier universities alter the way higher education is achieved, the next steps should be to figure out how to scale MOOCs to underserved communities.
Today, tens of thousands of students across the globe can enroll in courses to enrich their career prospects. Will there be a day when hundreds of thousands can learn skills such as basic literacy, early numeracy and rural health through an MOOC?
Thinking cap is on.
Image available under CC License by Earl Wilkerson