Are MOOCs the Future of Online Learning?

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In education, we often hear arguments in favor of smaller class sizes. These arguments contend that students learn better when there are fewer of them in a class, because each one gets more individualized attention from the instructor.


So it may seem counter-intuitive to support classes that can swell to several thousand participants. How can students learn in these sorts of settings? How can instructors handle the crowd?

The answers to these questions aren't found in traditional classrooms -- no surprise. It's hard to imagine 2,000 students in a traditional lecture hall having a very rich or engaging learning experience. But engaged learning is what you find among the thousands of students who participate in a MOOC.

The acronym MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. The meaning of "massive" is obvious; a MOOC can range from several hundred to several thousand participants. But it isn't just the size of the classes or even their location -- online -- that make MOOCs different.


MOOCs redefine academic courses in several ways. They are open, for one, which means that anyone can participate. The content of the course -- readings and so on -- is freely and openly accessible. The content that participants create is also open. Students blog, for example, and share their learning with one another.

And that's one of the key pieces with a MOOC. In some ways, how learning and sharing works in a MOOC is more akin to a social network than to a traditional classroom. But a MOOC is designed for this online world -- one where you can find information about almost any topic, true, but where there are also thousands of people with whom you can share and discuss these ideas and from whom you can learn. There is no strict schedule to a MOOC; the direction is guided by the participants and their interests.

MOOCs challenge many of the notions we have about formal learning: where and how and from whom learning happens, how we gauge success. Of course, participating in something of this scale can be overwhelming and requires a strong commitment in order to learn. But it also means that participants get to define what counts as success.

Interested in a MOOC? Check out what George Siemens and Stephen Downes, the originators of the concept, are facilitating this fall, something Siemens is calling "the mother of all MOOCs."