The History and Future of MOOCs and the New Open Education Week


The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is now offering its first MOOC -- Circuits and Electronics -- a prototype course for the MITx project. Screenshot by MITx.

3.7.12 | Around the world, massive open online courses—MOOCs—are drawing thousands of participants eager to learn sophisticated skills and maybe even pick up some sort of credential or credit.

MOOCs are not only becoming a “tool for democratizing higher education,” as Tamar Lewin writes in The New York Times, they are also changing educators’ atttitudes about teaching.

Consider Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford research professor and Google fellow, who taught an Artificial Intelligence course last fall with Peter Norvig, a Google colleague. A stunning 160,000 students in 190 countries enrolled last fall, joining 200 students who registered on-campus—the majority of whom opted for the videos over attending class. But there were still plenty of opportunities for interaction, as Lewin reports:

Mr. Thrun was enraptured by the scale of the course, and how it spawned its own culture, including a Facebook group, online discussions and an army of volunteer translators who made it available in 44 languages.

“Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said at a digital conference in Germany in January. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.” [...]

Mr. Thrun sent the 23,000 students who completed the Artificial Intelligence course a PDF file (suitable for framing) by e-mail showing their percentile score, but not the Stanford name; 248 students, none from Stanford, earned grades of 100 percent.

Stanford is offering 13 MOOcs this spring, 10 more than it offered in the fall. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is now offering its first MOOC—Circuits and Electronics—a prototype course for the MITx project, which will offer courses with some sort of credential. (Interested? Sign up at; the course begins March 5 and runs through June 8.) And now get ready for MOOSe—a massive open online seminar. Richard DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities, is working on setting it up through a network of universities.

George Siemens, a professor in the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University who started a MOOC on open education five years ago, is involved with Georgia Tech’s program. Siemens told the Times: “A lot of the relationships formed through that first course are still continuing today ... What we found was that in a MOOC, instead of the classroom being the center, it becomes just one node of the network of social interactions.”

In a terrific post at his own site on current conversations around the web about MOOCs, Siemens explains how he and Stephen Downes got started with open online courses:

We were both at a Desire2Learn conference in Memphis in 2008. And we were both tired of arguing about connectivism (“is it a theory”). We decided that experiencing networked learning was important to understanding networked learning.

Instead of talking connectivism, we wanted to create an experience that was essentially connectivist: open, distributed, learner-defined, social, and complex.

In designing courses, educators often make important decisions on behalf of learners. The educator forms a “boundary” around the knowledge that will be explored in a particular course. Finding your way through, and making sense of, a chaotic landscape is the learning experience. Traditional learning design tries to reduce complexity. We try to increase awareness of complexity. Duplicating what someone else has decided is important is still a type of learning, but not one that exists outside of classroom settings. Real world learning is messy and chaotic.

We decided that we wanted to do for teaching and learning what MIT had done for content with their OCW initiative.

It’s a great read, covering ground from the first open course they offered (which wasn’t the first ever; others launched courses in 2007) to Siemen’s thoughts on the future of MOOCs and the bigger picture: visions of what education could be. For additional background reading, take a look at the literature around open universities—40 years worth of discussions.

Plus: This week marks the first-ever Open Education Week, a project organized by the Open Courseware Consortium with the participation of numerous higher learning institutions around the world and Creative Commons P2PU. Here’s how the site defines open education:

Open education is about sharing, reducing barriers and increasing access in education. It includes free and open access to platforms, tools and resources in education (such as learning materials, course materials, videos of lectures, assessment tools, research, study groups, textbooks, etc.). Open education seeks to create a world in which the desire to learn is fully met by the opportunity to do so, where everyone, everywhere is able to access affordable, educationally and culturally appropriate opportunities to gain whatever knowledge or training they desire.

Over at the blog, there are several video posts about open education from various perspectives, including the open-education movement in Korea and the importance of open educational resources for community and two-year colleges. 

Also this week, Creative Commons, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Open Society Institute have joined together to launch the Why Open Education Matters Video Competition.

Cash prizes will be awarded for the best short videos that “explain the use and promise of free, high-quality Open Educational Resources—or ‘OER’—and describe the benefits and opportunities these materials create for teachers, students and schools.” The submission deadline is June 5 and winners will be announced July 18.

The judges include Mark Suman, executive director of the Mozilla Foundation; Anya Kamenetz, Fast Company magazine writer; Liz Dwyer, education editor at GOOD magazine; actor and filmmaker James Franco; and others.

Learn more from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

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