The Rise of MOOCs and Other Transformations in Higher Education

Thursday, May 2, 2013 -- Ashlee Tatum-Eckley

Two new articles, one in the Wall Street Journal and one on the BBC website, confirm the impact that online learning is having on higher education. Both of these pieces refer to the advent and growth of the massive online open course (MOOC) concept as an example of how technology is changing, and will continue to change, how post-secondary students learn.

In the Wall Street Journal piece, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, recounts his experiences in teaching his global philosophy course to thousands of students throughout the world. Roth mentions the skepticism that is usually displayed by his colleagues when he mentions online learning. But he also says that his experience has taught him that, “real learning can take place on the Web.” His MOOC began with almost 30,000 registered students, and while the number of active students nearing the end of the semester had fallen to about 4,000, he acknowledges that by their nature, many MOOCs encounter high rates of attrition. 

Roth's course included the creation of a Google Hangout in which students chosen by lottery participated in a discussion of the readings and lectures. “Our hangout included people in Calcutta, São Paulo, southwest France and . . . Rhode Island.” Thousands of other students watched the Hangout and would continue the conversations in a variety of different forms.

What was the result? As Roth puts it, while on-campus students enjoy the benefits of a holistic learning context, “Teaching this MOOC has shown me that online courses will be increasingly viable and valuable learning options for those who can't make their way to campuses. Taking a course online is clearly not the same thing as integrating study with residential experience, but it is a powerful mode of learning that is already enriching millions of lives across the globe.”

On the BBC website, education correspondent Sean Coughlin covers comments made by Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. Coughlin reports that, “The custodian of the world's biggest online encyclopedia says that unless universities respond to the rising tide of online courses new major players will emerge to displace them, in the way that Microsoft arrived from nowhere alongside the personal computer.” He quotes Wales as saying, "I think that the impact is going to be massive and transformative," describing the importance of the MOOCs (massive open online courses) that have signed up millions of students.

Wales goes on to say, “There are a load of online educational resources, they're booming. Parents are looking for the best education for their kids, they realize these tools are working. There's a marketplace for it long before the traditional school is going to think about it.”

What are the benefits of online learning that are particular to higher education? Is the lecture hall doomed? How do you see online learning transforming higher education learning, and learners? It's a brave new world.