From Hype to Nuanced Promise: American Higher Education and the MOOC 3.0 Era

It's only been a year since MOOC-mania took hold, but already it's been a wild ride, a fast-changing evolution...
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Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, splashed on the higher education scene in sensational fashion in the summer of 2012.

When Coursera (a Silicon Valley start-up MOOC platform) enrolled its one millionth student, The New York Times took notice with a front page article, and the higher education trade press began covering the topic on a daily basis--often with multiple stories a day. Coursera and two other major MOOC platforms, Udacity and edX, were hailed as truly transformational, a potential cure-all for the problems of how to contain college costs and boost the number of Americans who earn college degrees.

It's only been a year since MOOC-mania took hold, but already it's been a wild ride, a fast-changing evolution both in how MOOCs are viewed by the general public and the higher education community and in how the courses might best be applied to the needs of colleges and universities and the students they serve.

Indeed, just last week an Inside Higher Ed story explored questions raised by Dan Greenstein of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about whether higher education is suffering from "innovation exhaustion" at least partially caused by MOOCs.

It certainly hasn't taken long for the pendulum to swing from what I like to call the MOOC 1.0 era, through the MOOC 2.0 period and quickly on to what I have dubbed the MOOC 3.0 era.
The MOOC 3.0 era shows us that these courses and the technology that drives them hold great promise for expanding the higher education pipeline but in a much more nuanced and customized manner than envisioned when they first burst into public view. MOOC content and concepts are being integrated with more traditional, mainstream higher education delivery models, producing rapidly evolving hybrid forms of MOOCs where, for instance, students take an online class but also have the opportunity to meet in-person with tutors. My organization, the American Council on Education (ACE) is involved in a research effort investigating how students might gain traditional college credit for successfully completing a MOOC.

The MOOC 1.0 period actually dates to 2008, when the first MOOC was offered as an online course in "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge," by the University of Manitoba, Canada. Based on a completely open, distributed, peer-learning model, the course enrolled a small number of paying students as well as over 2,000 "auditors," students who participated in the course for free. The first U.S.-based MOOC, "Online Learning Today and Tomorrow," was offered in 2011 by University of Illinois Springfield. These early courses were unique in their open, peer-led, distributed format. While they did not achieve the high enrollments we see in MOOCs today, these first efforts didn't take long to launch MOOCs into a much higher orbit.
As we all know, just a few months later came MOOC 2.0, which was highly focused on the "name brand" universities that created and exported MOOCs.

Where MOOC 1.0 was built on the notion of open educational resources, MOOC 2.0 focused on a more top-down video lecture format. The term "open" is a bit of a misnomer, referring mainly to open enrollment. For the most part, ownership of course content and platform design was maintained and protected by course developers, therefore allowing them to monetize their intellectual property in some manner. (Only edX provides open educational and platform resources.)

While much attention has been paid to the high enrollments and global reach of MOOCs, the most transformative aspect of the MOOC 2.0 era has received less scrutiny: the accelerated innovation and experimentation in adaptive and personalized learning occurring at the intersection of cognitive science and technology. MOOCs collect large volumes of student behavioral data, providing a real-time view into how students learn. We are moving toward a time when education can be adapted and customized to the unique learning styles and needs of individual students.

But in MOOC 2.0, the courses had no prerequisites or admission requirements, were offered at no charge to students, had relatively low levels of direct faculty interaction and carried no academic credit. They were designed for the lifelong learning or "leisure learning" market, and that's exactly what they attracted. Most students enrolled in Coursera MOOCs, over 80 percent, have already earned one or more degrees. This statistic also may explain the often criticized 9-10 percent completion rate of most MOOCs. Most MOOC students are not seeking a degree or academic credit.

However, for those who did complete a MOOC, validation and credit were of interest to some. Universities that offered MOOCs were not willing to provide their own academic credit, citing the need to protect the integrity of their full residential campus experience. Experiments in meeting this demand for transferable academic credit have occurred, most notably Coursera's "signature track," and the initiative by ACE's College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE CREDIT®) to evaluate some MOOC courses for potential credit recommendations. So far, ACE has recommended credit for five Coursera MOOCs, four Udacity MOOCs and one edX MOOC. It is up to individual institutions whether to accept ACE CREDIT recommendations.

Now, MOOC 3.0 has arrived with a focus on institutions importing MOOCs, usually not as complete courses, but as components used as needed by individual institutions and faculty members, whether it's a particular MOOC's content, methods or technology tools. For example, some faculty license content from MOOCs (video lectures, simulations or exercises) and integrate them into their hybrid or "flipped" classes. Faculty may refer students to a MOOC in order to prepare for an upcoming course or for additional practice or tutoring during a course. Some institutions also consider completion of a MOOC during the admissions process, just as they would consider advanced placement coursework. In addition, faculty and institutions are importing and using MOOC-related learning analytics and adaptive learning systems.

What should we make of all this, from the triumphant pronouncements of the next big thing to a seeming MOOC backlash featuring critical media stories, only to be followed by more nuanced coverage and critiques?

That Inside Higher Ed story referred to a theory that I have for some time thought was an appropriate way of thinking about the MOOC evolution: the Gartner technology "hype cycle." MOOCs already have moved through several stages along that cycle, from their initial breakthrough to inflated expectations and down into the trough of disillusionment. MOOC 3.0 is akin to the Gartner scale's slope of enlightenment, where second and third generation products begin to emerge. Eventually, the hype cycle predicts, we will enter a plateau of productivity and the various permutations of MOOCs will become part of the higher education mainstream. I think we already are entering this next phase.

But despite the potential of MOOC 3.0, we now realize MOOCs are not a magic bullet for all that ails higher education. It is important to remember that the United States ranks just 14th globally in the proportion of its population with a postsecondary degree and that five years from now more than 60 percent of all U.S. jobs are predicted to require some level of postsecondary education.

MOOCs and their derivatives, and the accelerated experimentation and wide-ranging conversations they have sparked, have played an important and energizing role in our quest to help more students along the path to postsecondary attainment. But to truly meet those goals and help many more Americans gain a college degree and the ability to navigate a globally interconnected world, American higher education must continue to explore and embrace new and transformative innovations within and beyond MOOC 3.0.

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