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Separating MOOCs and University Courses

Separating MOOCs and University Courses
Massive Open Online Courses have value for adult students looking to return to higher education, but there are a number of hurdles standing in the way, not the least of which is the challenge of accreditation and credentialing.

There are multiple options for studying over the Internet and those options have exploded in the last few years. MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, are currently the most popular of those options. One might ask the question, are MOOCs as beneficial as university-sponsored courses? I think the answer is it really depends on the learner.

MOOCs have several strengths. One is that they offer an opportunity to test-drive a course or field without much risk. One of the biggest advantages many non-traditional learners have discovered is the opportunity to engage in college-level coursework at the privacy of their own desk. Learners in the 30 to 50 age group often worry they have been out of the school environment for far too long to be successful. Essentially, they are worried they cannot learn as well as they did when they were in their late teens and twenties. MOOCs meet the needs of hesitant students because there is virtually no risk.

Another advantage for students in this age group is most MOOCs fit into their life, instead of the reverse, where they would have to rearrange life to include school. Further, MOOCs allow learners to study the subjects they want to study. Most higher learning institutions’ courses and programs have prerequisites a learner must complete before he or she can begin the intended course. MOOCs, which sidestep this issue, are learner friendly. Lastly, MOOCs, like many other self-directed learning methods, promote self-discipline, ownership of learning and critical thinking, which often means a deeper commitment to engage and complete the course. These characteristics appeal to adult learners who only have time for the studies they need.

Of course, one cannot discuss the benefits of MOOCs without also examining the possible weaknesses in this type of learning. Perhaps the biggest concern with MOOCs is quality control. The sheer volume of available MOOCs is staggering and begs the question of who is ensuring the accuracy and validity of the course content. Further, how do students get accurate feedback and support with the massive number of students enrolled in many of the courses? These are legitimate concerns, but they are concerns most often expressed by education professionals, not the learners themselves.

A companion concern to ensuring course content validity (again, mostly brought up by education professionals) is the difficulty in verifying the enrolled learner is actually learning the content. In an online environment with no type of oversight, it is easy to cheat. This issue is of major importance because, presently, there is no identity authentication of participants in MOOCs, and it is a concern likely to be addressed until there is some kind of currency attached to completing a MOOC.

Another concern starting to surface is an issue with which, as a lifelong independent learner, I am the most enthralled. That is the idea that the success of MOOCs could actually lead to the possibility of à la carte education. Could there possibly come a day when learners might be able to build their own degree through engagement with a variety of courses, sponsored by various institutions and subject matter experts? Could learners really be trusted to decide what they need to know, with whom they would like to learn it and what their learning path and timeframe are?

The vision of à la carte degree paths would re-invent what higher education means and can do for learners. Of course, the vision has multiple obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is accreditation. Accreditation is under scrutiny itself as the world of higher education works to internalize the innovations and disruptions beginning to legitimately challenge traditional educational models and cultures. The biggest hurdle for MOOCs and à la carte education models will be building some kind of universal currency that can be converted into better employment opportunities and lifestyles. The next big innovation in the higher education industry might just be how to validate the learning participants achieve in MOOCs and non-traditional degree programs. Assessment will likely be in the middle of those innovations.

So I finish where I started: do MOOCs have the same kind of value that university courses do? It depends on how value is defined. It depends on the quality of the course and the need for engaging in the learning. But, mostly, it depends on the learner. Academia struggles, and will continue to struggle, with turning so much power over to learners, not so much due to their own egos — though there is a fear among academics of losing their standing and their way of life — but because it is very difficult to let a child take those final steps without the parent’s supporting hand. The key for academics will be for them to take the lead and guide the innovations in higher education to a new and successful destination. Education leaders have a role in discovering new models of education. Their wisdom and experience are still very much needed; it’s just needed differently. And in a very real sense, the needs of both educators and learners are as similar as they have ever been: they both are seeking a path to validate, by credible means, that their previous experience and service counts.

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