There has been a lot of talk about MOOCs. As with previous waves of educational technology, there is much hype and hope this finally will transform education as we know it. As with previous waves of hype in education, the focus on the purely technological may obscure the real value (see my October 2, 2012 post).

In a recent online presentation, “Beyond MOOCs: Is IT Creating a New, Connected Age?”, organized by EDUCAUSE, futurist Elliott Masie suggested breaking MOOC into its constituent parts: Massive – Open – Online – Course. The last part is not new: online courses have been around for almost two decades. Massive and open are more recent, given prominence when prestigious universities, such as MIT, began opening up their courses to the world (MIT OpenCourseWare). There also are non-university MOOCs, such as those offered by the Khan Academy.

Masie recounts asking a meeting of university presidents why they were interested in MOOCs. He was shocked when many of them said they saw them as a potential source of new revenue. Revenue was also the impetus for many US universities to develop distance learning initiatives in the late 1990s (MOOCs minus the open and not so massive). The hope was that professors using technology could just as easily teach 100 paying students as 20. The substantial investment cost required to set up quality distance education was often overlooked and few institutions have been successful at making money this way.

Many institutions that are investing in MOOCs do so not to make money but to support their brand. Some have offered them in limited form as a recruitment tool, making a few gateway courses available and giving on-campus tuition credit to those who complete them. Some emphasize the community service/global citizen aspect (the M and O in MOOC). There is a tangible benefit to providing learning to parts of the world without access to quality educational opportunities or where the majority of the population cannot afford to pay for it.

Traditional universities do not only provide access to courses, they also provide certification of competency through continuous assessment. This is more challenging to do online, particularly when there is a need to assess skills rather than just knowledge. From the earliest days of distance education, which preceded the online age (see timeline below), a debate has raged about its quality relative to an on-campus experience.

The other speaker at the EDUCAUSE event, Christopher Dede, highlighted a very relevant point here. He noted that most MOOCs are based on the traditional education model of the lecture, which many would say is discredited as a method, although it could be argued that the chat and discussion forums that accompany online lectures enhance the quality compared with the on-campus experience. There are more advanced forms of online learning using simulation, virtual worlds and game-based approaches, but these are yet to be integrated into MOOCs.

Creating a MOOC is like establishing any educational initiative. I believe it is dangerous for administrators to jump on the bandwagon without having answered three questions:

Is everyone involved clear on what a MOOC is?
Are they clear on why the institution wants to implement it?
Are they aware of the human factors, process issues and costs involved in implementing it?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, it might be better to ignore the hype.

A timeline of distance education (click to enlarge)