What Are 'MOOC's and Why Are Education Leaders Interested in Them?

It's a question higher education leaders are asking themselves a lot these days -- what are these so-called MOOCs and should their college or university offer one?
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By Josh Jarrett

It's a question higher education leaders are asking themselves a lot these days -- what are these so-called MOOCs and should their college or university offer one?

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, offer free online college-level classes open to anyone, and everyone, who wants to take them. MOOCs have captured the imagination and attention of entrepreneurial newcomers and traditional incumbents alike. Start-ups such as Coursera, edX and Udacity have led the charge, expanding course offerings and rapidly signing up partners, from individual faculty members to prestigious institutional partners. Established institutions such as San Jose State University are trying out MOOCs in traditional classes, "flipping" the experience so students take the MOOCs as homework and engage in deep problem solving in the classroom. The very notion of free, high-quality courses has some prognosticators pronouncing MOOCs as a game changer that will drive down the cost of college while driving up student learning.

The New York Times recently called 2012 "The Year of the MOOC."

Is this hype or are MOOCs really the next big thing? Frankly, it's too early to tell. The rich data that underlies these technology-enabled learning assets are just beginning to be mined in order to expose the teaching and learning implications. We know a little bit about the students who tend to take MOOCs (mostly the educated and motivated), but we don't know enough about with which students, disciplines and courses MOOCs are most effective. We don't know if MOOCs can develop business models powerful enough to trigger colleges and universities to change business-as-usual.

Could MOOCs power a revolution in personalized learning over the long-term?

We're cautiously optimistic about the possibilities. That's why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing to explore the above questions. In June 2012, we made a grant to MIT to develop and offer a new, free prototype computer science online course through edX, and to partner with community colleges to experiment with use of the course in a flipped classroom manner. Today, we are awarding 13 grants totaling $3 million to organizations and colleges to study MOOCs, to create new MOOCs for introductory courses, and to blend MOOCs into on-campus courses. Descriptions of these grants may be found below.

These grants demonstrate our interest in two things in particular: (1) what would happen if faculty blended the best attributes of successful MOOCs into their traditional teaching and (2) whether or not a wider range of learners, particularly low-income young adults and students with lower levels of academic proficiency, can learn via MOOCs and potentially receive credit for doing so.

Could faculty spend less time preparing and giving lectures, and more time interacting with students? Could colleges and universities devote more time to developing critical thinking, communication, and teamwork skills because the basic foundational skills were mastered quickly, easily, and cheaply through a MOOC?

These are the questions we need to be asking, and research has shown that blended learning is more effective than either face-to-face or pure online learning. For instance, courses developed by faculty, learning scientists, and technologists at Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative were shown to produce results equal to traditional face-to-face instruction-in 25 percent less time.

This could be a revolutionary development in higher education, and MOOCs could teach us a lot about how to develop high-quality online learning experiences that complement face-to-face instruction. Today's MOOCs and MOOC platforms still have a long way to go to fulfill this vision, but the potential is there. We need to invest the time and resources into answering these questions--and resist passing judgment either for or against MOOCs before the evidence is gathered.

In addition to the grants we've made, we have also committed $250,000 to fund additional research to examine the effects of the first generation of MOOCs and identify potential areas for future improvement. While we still have a lot to learn, we are proud to be supporting innovators with the courage and creativity to explore how MOOCs can increase access to affordable, personalized learning for all.

Josh Jarrett is a Senior Program Officer for Postsecondary Success in the U.S. Program of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Within Postsecondary Success, he leads the portfolio responsible for encouraging transformation of credentialing through innovative technologies and delivery models.

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