Anka Mulder

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MOOCs: bad? or the next best thing since sliced bread?

There are some points that puzzle me about the MOOC movement. The first point is the complete focus on MOOCs as if there are no other interesting online education initiatives. While I also believe that MOOCs are very interesting, I do not believe they are a solution to every educational problem. MOOCs are meant to reach out to huge numbers of self learners. For that reasons, they are not tailor made. So for smaller groups of students with specific learning needs, e.g. bridging courses, other forms of online education are more suitable. Also, I do not believe that MOOCs are the end of history with regard to online education. I am convinced that they are an important step, but more steps will be taken. Another good reason for keeping our eyes open for other open and online developments.

The second puzzling point is the wave of negative comments on MOOCs. While Europe is taking the first steps in the MOOC development, the US seems to be engaged in a lively discussion on the good and bad aspects of MOOCs. At the center of this, at this moment, is an open letter sent to Harvard professor and educational superstar Michael Sandel. Sandel, known throughout the world for his lectures on moral dilemmas, produced a philosophy MOOC on edX. This MOOC is supposed to be used in San Jose State’s regular programme. San Jose State University lecturers are refusing to teach this course, stating that they do not want to encourage the university “to replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students at public universities.”

It is interesting to read the online comments to this letter, notably those in the Chronicle of Higher Education: MOOCs create an elitist higher education system, increase the distance between rich and poor students, do not always provide good quality, consist of lectures and tests rather than something new and modern. Important criticism, but I wonder why MOOCs have been singled out for this criticism? Is regular, campus education better? Are these problems new? Campus education has to deal with quality issues as well, notably in undergraduate education. Regular education also still mostly consists of lectures and tests. And on elitism one participant in the online discussion mentioned: “Access is a pressing issue for the public because they already don’t have access” – again: not a new problem.

It is ironic that a movement that started out to increase access higher education to as many people as possible is now criticized over exactly this point. But let’s face the facts. Millions are using MOOCs so apparently MOOCs are addressing a demand. These people pay nothing for their courses and still get quality education, sometimes great, sometimes average, but still better than none at all. I am hoping that this discussion does not divert us from the real issue: how do we provide access to a growing number of students, who do not have the means or opportunity to get it.

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