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Learning from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Everyone's talking about developments in educational technology and online learning, particularly in higher education. The movement is sparking animated conversation and raising new questions about our understanding of teaching and learning, and perhaps answering some old questions.

More and more top-ranking universities are offering free online courses through numerous platforms such as Coursera, edX, Udacity and UniversityNow. These consortia are just a few examples of open online education programs, also known as massive online open courses (MOOCs). The New Media Consortium predicted that out of all today's emerging educational technology, MOOCs will have the single greatest impact on higher education in the next five years.

The goal of these online academic courses is to make a high quality education available to all. The format removes barriers such as the cost of attending a renowned university and physical or geographical obstacles faced by would-be students around the world.

The question of how valuable these courses are to the students, and how effectively they teach, is still being debated. Many boast high enrollment rates, but very low rates of completion. Many are not accredited. Some offer certificates of completion, sometimes for a fee.

Enrollment in these courses is unprecedented and traditional college campuses are grappling with the implications of the boom. Talented teachers can reach an exponentially higher number of eager students anywhere in the world. Innovators in the field continue to come up with creative solutions to problems of, for example, grading the coursework of its 100,000 participants. Will these changes render their age-old customs obsolete, replacing the standard university experience?

Traditional institutions do stand to benefit from the volume of data on student performance that the MOOCs and similar programs are gathering, which can inform their teaching methods and provide quantitative evidence of effective teaching practices. The additional technology tools being developed may also have a place in the physical classroom.

Coursera, one of the largest and most popular MOOC providers, offers its users the chance to "take the world's best courses, online, for free." Coursera's co-founder, Daphne Koller, spoke at a TED Conference about the advantages for students who complete the courses: educational institutions may recognize their coursework and award university credit, or a certificate of completion may give a job candidate added value in the eyes of a potential employer.
The technology allows students to more opportunities to personalize their learning experience in a new way. Course participants can play video explanations at their own speed, review difficult concepts by replaying professor's lectures and take as many breaks as they need, without affecting the pace of the rest of the class.

Some elements of traditional courses including a regular class schedule, deadlines and graded assignments, are increasingly used by Coursera's creators. These had often been missing in online academic programs, and Koller says that building such aspects into the course seems to prompt students to take their enrollment more seriously.

Coursera also stresses the importance of active learning by incorporating questions addressed to the class during the videos. Students respond to the practice questions that are checked immediately and provide both instant feedback and retrieval practice. On their own, students have also formed smaller study groups, locally or remotely through online chat rooms and global collaboration across different time zones means help from a fellow classmate is available at any hour. Using these methods for active learning increase student engagement, which studies show is positively correlated with achievement.

An added consideration is that teaching with technology is, by definition, predicated on avoiding technical failures. Even Coursera has not been able to pull it off every time. When courses are so rapidly scaled-up to accommodate enormous numbers of students, their flops have a much larger audience and can attract a lot of attention, as Jill Barshay blogged for The Hechinger Report.

Yet it's hard to argue with Koller's passionate appeal. "If we could offer a top quality education to everyone around the world for free, what would that do?" she asked. "It would establish education as a fundamental human right, where anyone around the world with the ability and the motivation could get the skills that they need to make a better life for themselves, their families and their communities."

She adds that this type of digital learning can continue throughout a lifetime and well beyond one's customary high school or college years, and makes it possible to discover extraordinarily talented individuals in the far corners of the world -- as long as those individuals have a web-enabled electronic device.

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