MOOCs Resurgent

November 14th, 2012

MOOCs are in the headlines again — not just in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, but in The New York Times and USA Today. The reason for all this attention? The American Council of Education has agreed to look at the viability of giving college credit for MOOCs, or at least engaging in research and then recommendations to that effect (hopefully in that order).

This probably  won’t come as a surprise to anyone –at least as a point we would get to eventually. That we got here so quickly may be another matter, especially when you realize that Coursera, the platform on which the ACE review will focus, was launched in April of this year.

But there are other interesting wrinkles. As the IHE article notes, “Most MOOCs from high-profile providers such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity and Udemy feature upper-division material aimed at students looking to hone their skills or who are merely curious.” The ACE review promises (or perhaps provokes?) a turned corner, something evident from the way its own press release — “ACE to Assess Potential of MOOCs, Evaluate Courses for Credit-Worthiness” — was placed in the category of “Prior Learning Assessments.” ACE, in other words, sees the potential of MOOCs-for-credit as a run-up to regular college attendance and degree completion.

So does Coursera, apparently. Here’s Daphne Koller, one of the two co-founders, as quoted in the Times article: “If you’re a random student from another country, what are your chances of being admitted to a university here? But if you can show you’re a motivated student who’s completing five courses and done well on the proctored exam, I think a university would pay attention.”

Another harbinger of changed directions (and the focus of another IHE article published today) is a project funded by the Gates Foundation and conducted by Ithaka S+R: the approach here, focused in the University of Maryland system, is explicitly a hybrid approach: according the the IHE article, “The new study will seek to compare student success in traditional versions of courses against alternate versions that ‘wrap’ MOOCs in the accouterments of a normal course — particularly opportunities to interact with live instructors.”

It’s too early to start placing one’s bets, but this venture, I would guess, is really the one to watch. MOOCs, at least at this point, are less courses than assemblages — sometimes very rich assemblages — of instructional content. I’m reminded of another technological revolution in human history that seemed to hold the same promise/threat of change, and on the same scale: the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century. Professors feared they would be replaced then too, but books didn’t replace them: on the contrary, they made them seem all the more useful, though that took a while to sort out. Now we have a similar situation (but also a much faster pace of change), and it will be interesting to see how things sort out with this turn of the wheel.

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