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Massive Open Online Courses: Taking Distance Learning To A New Level

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are taking correspondence learning to a whole new level. Curtis Bonk discusses how MOOCs are expanding access to education, and how we could see MOOC-degrees in the future.

Following in the “massive” footsteps of Schroeder, Cormier and others, online learning specialist Professor Curtis Bonk accepted an offer from Blackboard to deliver a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) of his own. With over 2,800 signed up, Bonk took a moment to discuss the MOOC’s potential for expanding access to higher education with The EvoLLLution.

What is a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)?

Keep in mind that a MOOC is a relatively recent phenomenon and if you go to Wikipedia it still says “this definition needs more modification,” so it’s one that has evolved. …We hear about open education, about open courseware from MIT, we hear about open educational resources just having pieces of information up on the web. We hear about open-source software, people crowdsourcing the creation of codes to create Apache servers or Linux operating systems or Moodle…so there’s a notion of openness all around us and Massive Open Online Courses is one iteration, one variation, on this theme of openness.

In this case, it’s a distributed course. Now we’ve had distributed courses with TV, with correspondence, with radio, with tape recordings, with audio books. Every wave of technology has a variation on what openness is and what massive means. There are people out there who have even talked this way—Steven Downes and others—who’ve said maybe this isn’t the right word for it yet (because it’s still evolving). But basically it’s being distributed around the world and the course materials are dispersed over the web.

It links to a theory called connectivism, which has emerged during this Web 2.0 era, where we participate in our learning and we contribute to our learning and don’t just receive it from someone else. It’s the connections or ties that we have in and among people that can enhance our learning possibilities.

In effect, a MOOC s something that totally expands who it is you might learn with, from, about. And so there’s this notion of joint participation in a large class that often meets about once a week to discuss content, …to reflect on what they’ve learned, to share what they’ve learned, to discuss what they’ve learned and to socially construct new knowledge.

I guess it’s that latter point that’s key here; instead of traditional learning management systems where everything is coming from an instructor, here it’s more of an access to a platform—a medium for discussion, debate, sharing—which can involve instructors presenting but it doesn’t have to, it can involve guest experts from around the world. … It takes the eye off a “one-person-knows-all” kind of environment to… moving aside of traditional structures of schools and schooling so that we’re learning from the webs of knowledge that exist out there that people like Ivan Ilych discussed decades ago. …

With a MOOC having thousands of people, there’s lots of resources that can be brought to bear to share and augment one’s learning. …

So more of a sage on the stage than a guide on the side?

My notion is that we’re learning concierges. No one teaches anything anymore with all the resources we have. … As instructors we’re tour guides, or expedition leaders, or concierges. We do directly instruct, and there is time for that, it’s just that the percent of time that one spends pontificating what it is that he or she knows is more limited than it’s been in the past.

How do MOOCs improve access to higher education for adult and other non-traditional students?

I was a bored accountant and CPA and I got access to education through TV and correspondence, and that changed my life. I was able to leave accounting, get into educational psychology because I could take the courses that I needed—that I never had as an undergrad—to get into graduate school.

TV changed my life, correspondence changed my life. Probably changed tens of thousands of people’s lives, if not millions! But now, the scale in which we’re talking about things with the web, the chance for web-based instruction to change one’s life and see new careers or find a new position. It is a total new ballgame than what I experienced almost 30 years ago when I started dipping my toes back into courses before grad school.

For adults who are losing their job or who need retooling or just want to find a new hobby, or just are interested in learning…these MOOCs are one way that you don’t have to travel somewhere, you can jump in and hear from authorities on different topics. …

We get into a lot of this about changing your life, about self-esteem, and about seeing the intersection of disciplines which is where new jobs end up coming from. We don’t know the jobs of tomorrow so you really have to be at the start of something. …

A MOOC can open people’s eyes up to disciplines, to people, to resources, to potential careers that they might not have been aware of, or fully aware of. …

Are MOOCs typically for-credit? If not, should they be?

There will be some MOOCs that are for-credit—there will be people who move into the space and that’s what I was getting at before that the definition is constrained by the way MOOCs have been offered in the past. …There definitely will be people repackaging this content and offering certificates, offering badges, maybe even offering some kind of award/trip/travel things! …

There will be eventually undergraduate degrees offered this way! I mean, we have undergraduate degrees offered through correspondence, undergraduate degrees offered through TV, there’s undergraduate degrees offered through radio. … People want to connect, they want to converse, they want to discuss.

I think the MOOC offers that chance for the conversation to happen.

For an article by a prospective student who is enrolled in the MOOC Bonk is teaching, please read Diary Of A Lifelong Learner Enrolling In Her First Massive Open Online Course by Marianne Dombroski.

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