The Rise of MOOCs: How Massive Open Online Education Started and Where it is Now

We are now in an ever dynamic, revolutionary generation where it is possible to glean information right by our fingertips, and the conventional way of educating is starting to become a thing of the past. Thanks to the advent of massive open online courses: we can now learn without having to sit physically in a classroom and put up with a boring teacher.  But how did this new trend of learning come about and eventually rise to popularity? This article provides the chronological details on the rise of massive open online education (MOOCs) and other significant information associated with it.

Its Early Inception 

A brainchild of Glenn Jones, this type of learning approach has been around for already more than two decades, but it has only gained popularity in the recent years. During the mid 1990s, an MOOC precursor, Mind Extension University (MEU), was developed by the Jones Education Networks, a cable and satellite network owned by Glenn Jones himself. It gradually led to the foundation of the Jones International University, which is the ever first regionally-accredited university in the World Wide Web. Back then, the MEU was flacked as being “too avant-garde,” but now it would be regarded as “unconventional” or “conservative.” Despite all the publicity, MEU became Knowledge TV, then Discovery Health Network, which ultimately became OWN, named after Oprah Winfrey, its CEO.

From there, it evolved into a concept based on Stephen Downes’ connectivist theory where the focal point of educating is based on experiential circumstances and the connections established along the way. This theory hammers more on the essence of the capacity to know more than what is already known. It puts forward the idea that learning should always be a conscious choice at every step of the way, and that a learner always has to choose what he wants to learn.

Its Rise to Success

What began as a simple course in 2008 called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” presented to 25 tuition-paying learners has turned out to be one of the biggest surprise to many. While the course had a curriculum where all of its contents were available via RSS feeds, discussion threads, blogs, and the like, this steady and fast rising method of teaching soon garnered the buy-in of stellar universities and companies:  Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Michigan, and University of Pennsylvania to name a few.

Perhaps one of the leading indicators of its gradual rise and unstoppable popularity is when Coursera launched two courses following Stanford’s course launching in 2011. Harvard joined the bandwagon and renamed it edX. Soon thereafter, many other notable universities did not hesitate. Other major players include Udacity and Udemy. These initiatives raised the venture capital of some players such as $22 million for Coursera and $15 million for Udacity.

2012: The Year of the MOOCs

No doubt, 2012 was named by The New York Times as the year of the moocs. Its surprising rise in a span of four years since its inception has surpassed what the proponents had anticipated. Just what do all of these imply? Quite a handful.

Although heading toward a nebulous future, massive open online courses can potentially alter the educational landscape in place. There are think tankers who opine that it necessarily steers the direction toward a more free, unrestricted way of learning as well as a bolstered instructional design. This mode shifts the focus of spread out learning to a more focused, selective one. Educators are chosen not only because they are well-known in their field of expertise but more so because of their manner of teaching. An educator or facilitator who is able to incorporate more fun in their teaching style is chosen over one who is perhaps substantive but rigid.

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The Critique

Moocs is not without criticisms. As you may notice, there are thousands of enrollees to a specific course open such that there is very little connection between the facilitator and the students. It is almost impossible for the facilitator to respond to all of the queries, to read all of the assignments, to keep track of everyone’s progress, to follow through, and one of the hardest, to reach at an objective reliable grade for the learner.

Picture this: a course offered through edX on ancient Greek hero had 27,000 registrants. If each learner has one assignment to submit, the facilitator could not possibly finish checking all 27,000 assignments on time. How can an assignment be possibly graded then? A suggestion brewed that a facilitator may utilize peer grading where one assignment is evaluated by five friends. While this sounds encouraging, there is concern in this mode. There is no common denominator for all evaluators. They do not have a base knowledge to contrast the assignment against. The grading is largely subjective and is highly affected by what a person knows, or to say the least, the limits of what he knows. Some are concerned that an assignment made by a Ph.D. graduate may just be evaluated by a 15-year old who happened to be enrolled.

What Lies Ahead

[wp_ad_camp_3] A question then comes up once the course finishes. So what now? As mentioned earlier, there is no transfer of credit to speak of. Many universities do not honor the credit a person gets after enrolling in a massive open online course. If a person’s goal is just to learn, perhaps moocs meet that goal. But if a person desires to have it credited, the problem then arises. Many universities hesitate because of the inherent difficulties encountered at the onset and even at the end of the course.

For a facilitator, the challenge is to make a massive crowd feel intimate despite the distance, despite the lack of personal correspondence, to at the same time ensure that the learning strategy caters to all types of learners and that the atmosphere can be as conducive as possible.

For a learner, the challenge is to learn as effectively with less input from the facilitator and to track his progress and ensure maximum learning with the resources made available.

The Challenge on the Proponents’ Shoulders

Indeed, mooc proves to be propitious. While others argue this mode predates the digital era, this is still a relatively new initiative. There is so much room for improvement. In a few months or years, the proponents of moocs will be able to innovate to address the surfacing issues.

Like many other exceptional creations, just because it has certain flaws does not make it ineffective. It is an opportune time for universities, governments, and organizations to shape the landscape of education. To think about ways of providing free flow of information without having to incur cumbersome debts, like what traditional education brings.

A few questions are left to ponder on, Will massive open online course now pose a threat to traditional education or will it supplement it? Is this really the future of education? What is in store for all universities, educators, and learners? You can only wait in much anticipation.


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Netflix enthusiast, horrible speller, jiujitsu hobbyist, weekend drinker, and occasional poker player. Favorite quote is "[o]ut of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars."