In my last posting I outlined some of the reasons why a MOOC (or a sequence of MOOCs) is not the same as taking a course at a 'traditional' college. Some readers might have thought this was a rather one-sided view and a little contrary to the spirit of this blog--which is, after all, primarily about MOOCS and similar opportunities--and they would have been right. The posting was based on an essay I wrote for a course where I had to contrast, rather than compare, so was deliberately unbalanced. So now I'll write the balancing article!
MOOCs* offer learners access to learning in a far more flexible way than any previous medium. Flexibility in terms of academically open access; there are no admissions tutors to convince, no mandatory prerequisites and no requirement to commit to a fixed programme of study. Flexible as to timing; even synchronous (or session-based as Coursera now term them) courses place only limited constraints on students--at most, deadlines for assignment submissions and an overall course end date. Flexible as to purpose; learners can take as much or as little as they want from a course. They can participate fully and 'complete' a course, just follow along with the lectures or merely dip in to cover a particular topic.
MOOCs fit in with students who can't dedicate themselves full time to studying because of work, personal or family commitments. They allow study wherever and whenever there is internet available (or whenever the student has planned ahead and downloaded materials). This is a whole lot friendlier than a previous generation of distance learning (as I experienced with the Open University here in the UK a couple of decades ago) which could easily involve watching television broadcast lectures at 2 or 3am!
The loss of social interaction which MOOCs, or any off-campus learning, almost inevitably involves is not seen as a loss by all students. Many find communicating via forums altogether less intimidating than face to face interaction--especially when peers often seem so much more experienced or knowledgeable--and flourish in the less threatening online environment. Personally, I have found the support offered through forums, both by peers and by teaching staff, to be far more useful than anything I received during my years of formal education.
So in many ways MOOCs do indeed live up to their ambitions of opening education to the world but with a few big limitations. Although there are many merits to MOOCs they are still not recognised or accredited academically (with a few notable examples such as the Saylor Academy's work in gaining accreditation through various means for its courses) or well known to employers. Also, assessment is still terribly lax and undermines credibility; as I have written on many occasions, any system that allows me to routinely gain 100% scores is really not rigorous enough. I can't end without mentioning the 'elephant in the room': money. Free and open worldwide access. . . but only if you have a unrestricted access to a computer and the internet--which eliminates a large swathe of the world's population. Free and open. . . unless you want a certificate, in which case you need to pay (Coursera and edX--although both now have financial support packages).
*I use the term 'MOOC' throughout for the sake of brevity but also include many other open access learning routes including Open Courseware (OCW), iTunesU and YouTube video lectures, and curated courses such as those offered by Saylor Academy