Online learning
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The more I learn about so-called massive online open classrooms, or MOOCs, the more I understand why the masses love them.

And the more I learn about MOOCs, the more I can’t help but wonder if too many institutions are putting the proverbial cart before the horse as they dive headfirst into the latest higher education craze. (Of course, the fact I used such an outdated idiom perhaps proves how behind the times I am.)

“So why now, why MOOCs?” Ray Schroeder, the director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois-Springfield, asked Thursday in Madison during a session at the 28th annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning. “What’s it going to do to higher ed? What’s it going to do to us and our business plans? Honestly, we don’t know the answer to many of those questions.”

And yet, that hasn’t stopped a growing number of institutions from breathlessly chasing the MOOCs bandwagon.

For those not in the know, these open classes enable thousands of people at once to take a free, online course -– often from a professor at a highly regarded university -- in any range of subjects. (For more information about MOOCs, including a short video that spells out all the basics, check out this web page produced by Schroeder and his colleagues.)

The MOOCs movement is still in its infancy and really only started picking up steam this past spring. In April, the universities of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Stanford announced they were teaming with a company called Coursera to deliver these free, online classes. In May, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a nonprofit partnership dubbed edX that will do something similar. Most recently, in the past month a dozen more schools announced new partnerships with Coursera, while Cal-Berkeley joined forces with edX.

This explosion of institutions deciding to offer MOOCs is especially eye-opening when compared to the snail’s pace at which change generally comes to higher ed.

When asked why so many are teaming up with Coursera, in particular, Schroeder told me after his session that such moves “offer a lot of positive publicity and the potential to grow in this field for a very low investment. So as an administrator you say, ‘Gosh, it’s really only going to take 10 of our faculty members who are excited about online learning, and let them have at it.’ And they think there is potential payoff, although they don’t know how, exactly, that’s going to happen. So they figure it’s probably worth it to put down a stake, so to speak.”

To be clear, MOOCs shouldn’t be confused with traditional online courses for credit that nearly all institutions have been offering for years. And there’s no question that online and blended learning (classes that offer a combination of online and face-to-face time) are key components to the future of education. But for-credit courses generally feature plenty of one-on-one interaction with faculty, which usually isn’t available via a MOOC. And although the more traditional online courses charge tuition, they also lead to credits that can be put toward a degree -– which remains the common currency that allows one to compete for jobs.

That said, it’s easy to understand why the MOOCs movement is catching fire. For lifelong learners or those across the globe who don’t have access to high-quality education -- or for those who simply can’t afford it –- these classes offer an incredible opportunity for people who are interested in a particular topic to learn about it in a structured way.

And most would agree that delivering high-quality education to the masses for free is a noble cause.

“It’s a phenomenon that’s moving ahead at the speed of the Internet,” Schroeder told conference-goers at the Monona Terrace Convention Center during his jam-packed, 45-minute session. “This year and next year provides an opportunity for each one of us here to join in the process of setting those effective practices and helping make a difference in how MOOCs are rolled out.”

Yet I’m continually struck by how this rush to make quality information available for free online reminds me of the push by newspapers in the late 1990s to make articles available on websites for free. Newspapers were infatuated with the potential to show off their work to untapped audiences. Fast-forward to today, and the public is so accustomed to accessing free information that most newspapers still are struggling to convince a good number of readers to pay for online content, which is undermining all revenue streams connected to the print products.

After completing his session Thursday, Schroeder again acknowledged there are a great number of unknowns with the MOOCs movement but explained his decision last summer to put together a MOOC titled, “Online Learning Today … and Tomorrow,” an eight-week course that drew an enrollment of 2,700 students from all over the globe.

“In talking with different people over the previous year, it was clear MOOCs were coming, that it was a big deal and it was something we should try,” he says. “The only way to do this is to just jump in and try it out.”

Sounds like the newspaper industry years ago, I told him.

“There’s going to be transformation, or disruption, and the newspaper business is a prime example of what can happen with technology,” he says. “We in higher ed have to reinvent ourselves. On the one hand I’m very concerned about what this could mean for higher ed, but on the other hand that makes it all the more important for us to be involved and engaged in the process from the start so we can make the transition, so we can build the business plan and find a way that academics can continue to teach and do research, and at the same time reach a broader audience of students.”

But don’t you need a business model before getting going? And by that, I don’t mean a good plan to make gobs of money -– but at least an idea of how to break even. Especially for the public institutions that are putting resources into MOOCs, while at the same time facing a seemingly perpetual budget crisis. Should these schools be spending resources to reach out to people across the globe when they’re struggling to meet the needs of educating those in their own state?

Schroeder says he has no idea how this all is going to shake out in the coming years. For now, MOOCs may prove most valuable to institutions as an online lab of sorts; a way for schools to try new things and figure out a set of best practices for delivering their for-credit online options.

Schroeder adds he understands why some schools are taking it slow and agrees each institution must choose its own timeline for when it’s best to launch MOOCs.

To date, UW-Madison officials haven’t announced plans to offer MOOCs, although it seems likely such a move will come sooner rather than later. In the Big Ten Conference, Michigan at Ann Arbor and Illinois at Urbana-Champaign already have partnered with Coursera to offer MOOCs.

The pull to keep up with the Joneses can be awfully strong – even if it’s not always clear where, exactly, that pull is coming from or where it’s going to drag you.