The Momentum of Today's MOOCs

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When Case Western Reserve University business professor Michael Goldberg first heard a university dean use the term "MOOC", he quickly used a tactic that many people may have used while talking with their own bosses.

"I nodded at him, as if I knew what it meant, and quickly Googled it afterwards," Goldberg said.

Yet just a short time after that initial meeting, Goldberg's relatively fluent in the language of MOOCs-- an acronym for an Massive Open Online Course, or basically, a free college class delivered via the Internet.

He launched his first MOOC earlier this year, enrolling more than 10,000 students from around the globe.

But Goldberg may be joining the MOOC party a little bit late. The concept got a lot of buzz when the courses were first introduced a few years ago, but since then, the excitement has seemingly started to died down.

A study released last month from the non-profit Bellwether Education Partners suggests the courses won't change the world of higher education as the hype initially may have indicated, yet they may not just be a passing fad. And although a New York Times headline proclaimed 2012 The Year of the MOOC, recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education asked a question with a different tone: is 2014 the year that MOOCs ceased to be interesting?

"The hype was so great, a year or so ago, that on a relative basis, it's calmed down a lot," said Bud Baeslack, provost at Cleveland's Case Western Reserve University, which has already developed two MOOCs. Goldberg's is their third.

"People have worked through these," he added. "They've tried them, the experiment has been underway, people have learned from these experiments, and they better understand now the role that MOOCs can play."

Most of these courses center around the use of professors delivering video lectures. Online forums are sometimes provided for students to interact. Since the average MOOC averages more than 43,000 students, the large class size usually means individual attention from the instructor is unlikely.

Some classes use tests and projects, others don't. And unlike the typical college  experience, there's no degree to be earned or tuition to be paid.

Over the past several years, many of the country's top colleges, like Harvard and Stanford, have been offering the Massive Open Online Courses for free. But now, the offerings aren't exclusive to just the Ivy Leagues, and more universities are beginning to jump aboard the MOOC train.

Scroll through the websites of any of the three biggest MOOC providers-- edX, Coursera, or Udacity-- and you’ll see a wide array of course offerings from schools across the country, ranging from the University of Rochester’s History of Rock to Boston University’s Introduction to Baseball Analytics.

And in the higher education world, Colorado State University professor Jonathan Rees said, creating a MOOC can potentially up your standings.

"Case Western is a very good school, don't get me wrong," said Rees, who writes a blog where he frequently talks about the impact of MOOCs. "But it doesn’t have the same universal name recognition of a Harvard or a Princeton. And if you’re associated with that by being a MOOC provider, then suddenly you’re one of the elite schools."

That may be an added incentive, since it still remains to be seen how these free courses will be a source of income for universities. The development of Goldberg's class at Case was subsided by a $69,000 grant from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, and CWRU's provost Baeslack said their university looks at MOOCs as a way to "serve the globe" by offering free education, not necessarily in order to collect additional tuition dollars.

"Financial is not really our driver," said Baeslack. "I’m not sure if it’ll be a driver, at least in the near future. At this point, the financial models are still being developed, in terms of bringing in significant revenue."

For MOOC critic Rees, another big drawback is that the courses don't have the level of in-depth interaction that he thinks is necessary for education.

"If you think that education is a transfer of information from one smart person to one less smart person, then a MOOC is perfectly fine," Rees explained. "If you think that education is a process, where students learn not just content, but how to think for themselves, then a MOOC is a disaster. "

But Case's Goldberg argued his course isn't like others he's seen, thanks to tactics like shorter video lectures and incorporating Skype chats from global entrepreneurs. And he doesn't even seem to be fazed by one of the biggest question marks surrounding MOOCs: completion rates.

The percent average completion rate of MOOCs hovers around just four percent, according to a University of Pennsylvania study.

Yet Goldberg said whether or not students complete the course isn’t necessarily his point.

"I think you can be successful at the class and deliver value even at a relatively low completion rate," he said.

"MOOCs are just one piece of this online learning puzzle," he added. "I think there's a lot of enthusiasm around MOOCs because of the experimentation and people trying new things. I'm sort of intrigued on where it all goes. I’m kinda keeping my fingers crossed that we can deliver on the promise."

As for the future of MOOCs, in a study released last month, researchers from Columbia University said that the courses still have a long way to go to ever come close to reaching their initial promise.

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