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Much ado about MOOCs

With apologies to the immortal Bard, all the talk these days about massive open online courses (MOOCs) sometimes seems like much ado about nothing. Not because MOOCs don’t have value, but because there seems to be a lot of confusion and little information about why MOOCs are important and how they differ from traditional online education.

MOOCs have created a great deal of chatter, from those who believe they are the wave of the future to the naysayers who believe they are a flash in the pan. I believe the real value in MOOCs is the potential to provide a research laboratory in which a great deal about education can be learned.

Enrollment in most MOOCs is not limited. If you take a course, you will most likely be one of at least several hundred, if not thousands. That certainly differentiates these classes from traditional online courses, especially the ones at University of Phoenix, where enrollment is capped below 20.

Your classmates in a MOOC may well come from all around the world. Currently, about 40 percent of MOOC enrollees are American, with Chinese, Brazilian and Eastern Indian close behind. And because enrollment is unlimited, feedback is often provided through a peer review system. You will review classmates’ work, and they will, in turn, review yours.

The reasons people enroll in MOOCs can be as varied as the individuals themselves. Many wish to learn a specific skill or gain certain knowledge to advance in their careers. Others enroll for enrichment purposes. Many people enroll in these college-level courses hoping the experience will aid them in determining a major or assist them in preparing for college-level studies. Others enroll because they believe in lifelong learning. Some are just curious.

Whatever the reason for enrolling, the data gained from studying students’ learning practices, their progression, their interaction with peer reviewing, and their determination to complete the courses will be invaluable. With the analytics currently available and software that will be developed as MOOCs continue to mature, it will most likely be possible to map knowledge and create an individualized course of study. It could sound the death knell of “one-size-fits-all” education, something University of Phoenix has been championing since our inception more than three decades ago.

Recently, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation solicited applications for grants for MOOCs aimed at “high-enrollment, low-success, introductory-level courses.” The hope is that MOOCs, generally considered best for motivated and prepared students, can be modified through research for remediation — an area that is desperately in need of an overhaul.

So is this a case of much ado about nothing? Certainly not. The potential to improve education as a result of the research and data that will come out of monitoring MOOCs could revolutionize and improve education on every level.

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