A Few Thoughts on MOOC's

MOOC is an acroynm for Massive Open Online Course. It’s a trendy name for packing up a course’s content (video lectures, problem sets, exams, a mechanism for peer interactions, etc.) and making it available to a large number of students over the internet without requiring significant live instructor input. It’s that last part that allows the system to scale and separates the idea from simple distance learning or a traditional online course.

The most exciting thing about MOOC’s is the expansion in availability of university-level content. At least three groups of top-tier universities in the US (edX, Coursera, and Udacity) are actively producing these kinds of online courses and making them available for free to anyone. It means that kids and adults from rural China to urban Brazil can watch and learn from the some of the best professors in the world and interact with each other about the material.

A second exciting thing about MOOC’s is that they promise to be a major disruptive innovation for existing institutions of higher education. Think about what happens in an average traditional college course. The professor stands up and gives a lecture taking occasional questions from the class. He/she assigns reading and homework and gives exams. They are somewhat available to answer questions in office hours or by email. A MOOC isn’t better on every dimension, but I believe they’ve recently crossed a line and the overall experience is actually better than the average college course.

As students become aware of MOOC’s, I think a few will decide to forego college and instead learn what they want to learn more cheaply and on their own schedule. Most students (and their future employers) however will want a credential (degree) that “proves” they have mastered a set of material. It’s only a matter of time before the big three (or someone new) comes along and is able to provide this. Online degrees exist today and I predict they will become more and more mainstream.1 That said, the current college experience is more than courses and I think the market for that won’t be going away soon.

Students will also start demanding more of classes at existing universities and attending colleges that raise their game and start providing higher quality in-class experiences. That means colleges will have to leverage what they have that the MOOC’s will never have: live instructors/experts that are able to spend time either one-on-one or in small groups with students answering questions and having real time conversations. This is possible online, but it doesn’t scale up to massive numbers of students per instructor. Some faculty will start building on MOOC content–that is, they will replace their own lectures with those of the MOOC’s and add their own interactivity. And I’m happy to say that the he big live lecture will go the way of the horse and buggy–average professors just won’t be able to compete with the top professors in the world and their video lectures.

I was going to title this post “The Revolution’s Coming” but the revolution is already here.

  1. This is exactly what happened with online dating over thelast 10 years.