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University education for everyone, everywhere: MOOCs let you attend lectures online

They take place on the internet and offer an interesting alternative to conventional lectures and seminars: massive open online courses, or MOOCs for short. These are web-based learning events open to anyone free of charge. What distinguishes MOOCs from the long-familiar forms of e-learning? What opportunities do MOOCs offer, and what risks to they harbour?

Educational courses offered online pose a real challenge to conventional educational systems. MOOCs are the latest trend: massive open online courses which are open and usually accessible to everyone. In the United States and Canada, these courses can easily attract participant numbers in the six-figure range. The same holds true in Germany, where iversity launched in late 2013. By the year’s end, the programme had already hosted more than quarter of a million students. Interestingly, the concept of e-learning already existed, so the idea really is nothing novel, especially considering earlier practices of distance learning by correspondence courses or lecture videos.

University 2.0: the first MOOCs

The Canadians Stephen Downes and George Siemens led an open online course held in 2008 under the title of ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’ (CCK08), and thereby signaled the official start of the MOOC movement.

Then in 2011, Stanford University launched for the first time three open online courses in computer science. The initiator of these courses was Sebastian Thrun, a computer science professor specialising in artificial intelligence. What began as a learning experiment led to the creation of Udacity, the pioneering online educational organisation which offers primarily computer science courses free of charge, freely accessible and pedagogically designed for the internet. In an interview with Spiegel online Thrun explains: ‘It was through the internet teaching project that I really noticed how incredibly powerful this medium is. By the time we had 160,000 registered participants, Stanford requested that we stop accepting any further students. In the end, 23,000 students took and passed a final examination.’

The unanticipated success of these first MOOCs drew the keen attention of the media. This led to the establishment of a number of consortiums in recent years that offer MOOCs, including Udacity, Coursera, edX and iversity. For the most part, these are a sort of spin-off from universities, or even mergers or cooperative undertakings between universities and companies.

Interactive learning: cMOOCs and xMOOCs

Just like traditional university courses, most MOOCs held in English have a schedule divided up into individual lectures. These learning modules make extensive use of video lectures, animation and wikis, and offer further lectures, quiz questions and homework. Course content is designed to be communicated online and produced specifically for this medium. The use of social media is crucially important to MOOCs, as course participants network with each other through communication channels like Twitter and Facebook, forums, video platforms and blogs.

Various forms of MOOCs have evolved: In cMOOCs, participants define their learning goals themselves and inject their own input, for example via blogs and RSS feeds. This mode of operation reflects the connectivist philosophy. Connectivism assumes that knowledge does not come from just one person, but rather through networking with others, for example over the internet.

In contrast, an xMOOC resembles more traditional lecture courses. The ‘x’ signifies ‘extension’, and has its origins at Harvard University: In its list of courses, the university had indicated the online versions of courses by inserting an ‘x’ in front of the course number. The focus in xMOOCs is on the instructional, i.e. the teaching or leading approach, which means by direct instruction and review of knowledge through testing.

Welcome to the Brave New World of MOOCs – a short video report by the New York Times

Opportunities and risks of MOOCs

What do MOOCs mean for the future of education? Access to universities from anywhere in the world free of charge, education for all – even at top-tier universities – could offer developing and emerging countries entirely new opportunities. However, without a stable internet connection and adequate English language skills, the limits of these opportunities swiftly become apparent. What is more, whoever lacks the self-discipline needed to work thoroughly and consistently on their own is quickly overwhelmed by MOOCs.

Be that as it may, in times of overflowing lecture halls and, in many countries, horrendously high tuition fees, MOOCs present a viable alternative or, at any rate, a supplementary format to classical university-level learning. Students can take their time selecting courses according to their major or priority areas, and work through the material as often as they wish. This also eases the burden on universities.

Yet despite the impressively high attendance figures, many participants are merely trying the courses out. At the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) in Potsdam, Germany, which offers online courses via its openHPI platform, only about one in three of those registered for these courses actually submits homework and takes part in discussions. At the very least, social skills need to be redefined in web-based learning, which entails a certain degree of isolation: while virtual channels can help students, the sense of engagement and commitment is not as strong as in real-world collaborative environments.

An additional factor to be considered are the huge quantities of data involved, because the courses offered are ultimately financed by the participants’ own data they input. This is why the linguist Joachim Metzner takes a more critical view of platforms like Udacity, as MOOCs generate valuable data that can be sold.

MOOCs make academia teaching more transparent

Ever since iversity opened the gates of the virtual university in Germany, interest has been huge. As shareholder and member of the Advisory Board Marcus Riecke notes in his blog, ‘Suddenly it becomes clear to everyone online what is good and popular, and what is not. MOOCs lend transparency to academic teaching. Mediocre course offerings are spotted as such, plain and simple. It then gets somewhat more difficult to find students willing to take and learn from courses offering little quality content.’

Hence, one thing MOOCs are definitely well suited for is raising a university’s international profile by making its course offerings and lecturers available online.

Read more on this topic at the Alumniportal Deutschland

January 2014

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