By Matt Ulakovic

The evolution of academia has emerged as an important topic over the past few years. The increasing costs of higher education and the technologically determinant outcome of increased multimedia quality have led teachers, organizations, and institutions to consider digital technology as a new way to teach. Responding to these changes, many people believe Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) represent the future shape of education.

Learning theories such as connectivism have been used to explain how MOOCs may succeed as the next most efficient approach to learning. MOOC Proponents believe they show superior results over traditional education techniques that tend to rely on hierarchically structured behaviorism, cognitivism, or constructivism approaches to learning that don’t often allow for interactive feedback between students to teachers or students to students. It is possible that this interactive nature of learning, now supported through MOOC environments, will lead to sweeping changes in the way that institutionalized education is conducted.

Sociologists sometimes describe the social dynamics between groups of people in terms of what has been termed gesellschaft or gemeinschaft relationships.   Perhaps similarities exist between those sociological theories of community, and the learning communities that arise from MOOC platforms that might help to explain their potential. In other words, the networking elements and peer group interactions are a significant benefit to MOOCs becoming a future standard within higher education. Combined with the mushrooming of collaboration among course participants in tertiary spaces, it is arguable that the existing evidence – albeit mostly anecdotal – suggests that the communal elements of MOOCs foster a sustainable relationship with regard to the successfulness and evolution of the new education format.

Technological Foundations of Open Learning

The concept of conducting educational lessons over technology enabled systems isn’t an entirely new one. Schools and colleges began to incorporate computers in to the classroom almost as soon as they became available. What has changed is the capacity and wide-ranging availability of computers and Internet access to the majority of education consuming populations (Kamenetz). The current breadth of participation in the production and collective communication of course knowledge makes emergent learning possible at an unprecedented scale and pace (Williams, Karousou and Mackness 44). Together, the rise of cloud computing and social media has increased the likelihood of success and satisfaction of online learning endeavors (Ripley).

Around the year 2000 many colleges and universities began to create hybrid courses in which students could participate in some of their coursework via an online platform through the institution. Over the past dozen years, the proportion of those classes has increased, and many have become fully digital so students don’t need to step foot in a classroom. However, the quality of online instruction offered through traditional institutions is oftentimes lackluster and simply a replication of the in-person lesson plan (Young).

Economic Reasons for Open Learning

Regrettably, some continue online courses through an institution while paying the same tuition rates as conventional classroom courses. Meanwhile, many people have been priced out of a formal education altogether because of continual tuition increases. The rate of tuition increase has even overcome the rate at which inflation rises (Delbanco). Students who take and pay for such courses often feel defrauded of time and money. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, America’s leaders of tomorrow are being saddled with massive debt to the tune of about $914 billion in student loans (Ripley).

Students and higher education professionals believe MOOCs are a solution to rising tuition costs. Massive Open Online Courses seem to have arisen as a response to these cost and quality issues (Tamburri). In just the past three years, a plethora of free online course providers have gone into business to help alleviate the pain of the high cost of education. Almost immediately, some of the world’s most prestigious universities began to offer their courses online through partnerships with some of the free MOOC platforms. Some institutions, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, already began offering their course materials for free use as early as 2001, but have nonetheless decided to join in partnering with the new MOOC providers.
Welcome and browse

While many of these free options don’t equate to credit bearing endeavors, many people are conscious that – regardless of the credit – they’ve still gotten the education and knowledge needed for their personal or professional growth. Many participants believe the creative production and discussion of course materials in a MOOC network inspires them to learn (Kop and Carroll).

Resistance to MOOCs

Regardless of the preexisting conditions leading people to choose MOOCs, some administrators remain skeptical. “True believers think that the new digital technologies will finally enable educators to increase productivity by allowing a smaller number of teachers to produce a larger number of ‘learning outcomes’ . . .  than ever before. But it’s too soon to say whether MOOCs will really help cure the cost disease” (Delbanco).

Risking the Demise of Traditional Education

One argument is that MOOCs will actually increase the difficulty in attaining higher education by causing a drop in traditional attendance; leading to institutions increasing their tuition rates even further. Critics believe smaller universities and colleges won’t be able to survive. Many community colleges which play critical roles for regional education and economic development are said to be the most at risk of going under (Cusumano).

These arguments seem to be rooted in saving of old institutions that no longer work. Rather than considering the overall societal benefits that will come from a less costly, more valuable education than ever existed before, they ponder what will happen to those who will lose their jobs if schools close  (Delbanco).

Furthermore, this argument doesn’t add up.  Those who are already unable to attend an institution due to location or price restrictions aren’t any less likely to attend because they gain open learning access. MOOCs offer them an opportunity for knowledge that simply didn’t previously exist in their circumstances. MOOCs offer an alternative to those who have no opportunity to a traditional education and for those simply looking for a way to keep their skills valid for new or evolving career needs (Davidson). “We hope to give everyone access to the world-class education that has so far been available only to a select few. We want to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in” (Coursera).

Challenges to Pedagogical Quality

Still, some argue that the quality of open source learning is low due to the lack of face to face interaction and culture that comes with a campus experience. They ask whether online education is a true substitute for in-class learning and face-to-face interaction. The personal networks and bonds students develop through a campus experience are said to be the most valuable part of their education (Cusumano).

While this may have been true in the case of previous, institutionally run online courses, MOOCs are showing they’re much more equipped to engagingly teach than their predecessors. Most MOOCs have taken their cue from neuroscience research showing that traditional 1-3 hour log lecture formats are less likely to lead to learning than short interval types of learning (Kamenetz). Coursera specifically teaches lessons in short intervals with inquisitive exercises of the knowledge spread throughout. The courses emphasize interactive engagement and show higher retention than is possible in a course which pursues recall via standardized testing after long periods of time have passed.
sign up course

Open source education providers are constantly fine tuning their efficiency by analyzing data on what students struggle with and which online tools work best.  The data-tracking puts pressure on traditional institutions to quantify what their students are actually learning. “The legitimacy of a new education model has to be based on measurement and transparency, not institutional brand” (Quinton).

The strategy MOOCs are using is also used in children’s educational programming, as it’s illustrated in the work of Malcolm Gladwell, who investigated the point at which people are able to best learn and retain information and knowledge successfully in his book, The Tipping Point. “Key ideas include mastery learning, to make sure that you have multiple attempts to demonstrate your new knowledge; using interactivity, to ensure student engagement and to assist long-term retention; and providing frequent feedback, so that you can monitor your own progress, and know when you’ve really mastered the material (Coursera).

Courses offered through Udacity, another MOOC provider, are also structured in such a way as to encourage learning in the way that our brains are programmed to most efficiently learn. “Humans like immediate feedback, which is one reason we like games. Researchers know a lot about how the brain learns, and it’s shocking how rarely that knowledge influences our education system” (Ripley). MOOCs have continually been documented as providing a satisfaction to the learning experience of participants because of their ability to also produce sharable content and spark ideas and dialog with fellow students (Kop and Carroll).

It’s hard not to surmise that some academic professionals are scared about the prospects of online learning altogether. Some may be forced to begrudgingly teach online courses and doing little in the way of developing their content to a best fit for online instruction, simply bring traditional content to the online sphere. In a way, some may be protecting their jobs by doing a less than stellar job at teaching online, while others meld the two into a better experience for students both on and offline (Kamenetz).
honor code

Feedback and Validation

Some academics argue that MOOCs lack the feedback and grading necessary for students to gain an understanding of the work they’ve done or its quality. As a result, they’ve said that critical thinking and writing skills will suffer because students do not experience individual interaction with a faculty member, even equating it to having no sense of social presence (Rubin).

Willaims, Karousou, and Mackness note that many academics dismiss emergent learning as irrelevant to formal education because – similar to their concerns about Wikipedia – its validation and self-correction mechanism isn’t credible  (Williams, Karousou and Mackness 48). However, initial open course offerings through Stanford saw students respond to each other’s forum posts in an average of 22 minutes (Kamenetz). “Even with thousands of fellow students, students can have an intimate, one on one learning experience (Skiba).”

Emerging as a leader in open learning, Coursera believes it’s developed a platform that is credible. Coursera courses are centered on interactive exercises and videos which foster student engagement and learning with multiple opportunities for interaction. Traditional homework can often actually lack immediate feedback while instructors move on to new material. Sometimes, traditional feedback is given weeks after the initial lesson and knowledge is lost in the interim (Coursera). Instead, feedback on Coursera comes from the enablement of near real-time peer assessment technology. Students are also trained to use a grading rubric before grading each other’s work.

Challenges of Enrollee Attrition

Completion Rates are also a major contributor to MOOC skepticism. Only about 10 percent of enrollees in MOOCs tend to actually complete them (Tamburri).

However, many of the detractors do not consider the vast difference in dynamics that exist between free online courses and paid tuition courses at an institution. If students could enroll in campus classes as easily as they can in a MOOC, perhaps the disparities wouldn’t be all that significant. Most universities do allow students to try out courses by registering for up to 19 credit hours while they may only need to take 12. A lot of students at traditional institutions try extra classes at the beginning of the semester to see what they want to stick with; dropping or withdrawing from those they don’t particularly like.

Meanwhile MOOCs essentially offer this same trial and decide option, but everyone who enrolls is factored in to the MOOC completion rates while traditional universities do not factor in those who drop or withdraw. “Students are significantly more likely to enroll in an interesting MOOC than in a comparable course at a university…and substantially more likely to withdraw” (Balch). Interestingly enough, MOOC statistics change quickly when analytics of involvement are taken into account. Apparently, the more investment of time and energy someone puts into a MOOC – watching the first lecture or completing the first assignment – the completion rate increases. Only about 53 percent who enroll in some MOOCs watch the first video. In the context of general internet engagement, the 5 to 10 percent intellectual engagement spread over 8 to 10 weeks is actually a lot better than critics might want to believe (Balch).
Lets make learning social

MOOC Communities and the Network Benefit

Recently, Time magazine covered the story of an 11-year-old Pakistani girl enrolled in an Introductory Physics class through Udacity. The girl was only one of 23,000 students enrolled in that particular MOOC worldwide. The number of participants alone wasn’t the most striking observance about the course though. Neither was the 11-year-old studying introductory physics. It was the community that rose up to support the girl in her efforts to complete the course when, just as she began the final exam – which was posted via YouTube – Pakistan blocked the site for unrelated political reasons. Fellow students helped ensure the girl was able to complete the exam by creating ways for her to access the questions and complete the exam (Ripley).  This is just one story illustrating the impact of community in a MOOC environment. The community grew from the course and onto tertiary networks and platforms where students were able to study together and essentially become a new community of their own.

Community through a Theoretical Lens

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft were traditionally theorized as ways to describe the underlying sociological principles of true natural community or its reasoned formations.  Whereas Gemeinschaft describes a classical hamlet-like community in which people hold multiple interdependent relationships with each other on a small scale, Gesellschaft reflects the associational formulations one might expect to experience in a modern urban or global context in which relationships are merely by acquaintance or professional in nature. These theories are traditionally opposites of one another (Miller 185).

However, the opposing spectrum these theories of community were based on has evolved since Ferdinand Tonnies first described them in the mid-twentieth century. What we see today is not a nation-state or urban landscape where these two theories of community serve to describe an area of space as one or another.  Instead, we now observe a space in which knowledge flows. Today, we can experience Tonnies theories of community in more realistic terms of a continuum or varying spectrum of community interaction across time and space.

In terms of Tonnies’ theories, MOOCs are modern technologies that express learning and interaction which would more accurately be described as a quintessential community existing somewhere on a continuum between the opposing ends. The true experience contemporary students and teachers feel is neither of the two in a solid sense. Instead, a sense of community is defined on an individual basis by users of a particular platform or MOOC, and may lie anywhere in between. Some connections within a MOOC relationship may be associative, whereas others may be based on multiple levels of connection beyond the MOOC itself – geography, lifestyle, economics, politics or interests also play a part.

MOOCs worth Noting

The Implications of Community Based Learning

As a pioneer in developing online education in the late 1990s, Ann Kirschner recently enrolled in a Coursera MOOC about the Health Policy and Affordable Care Act to investigate the latest generation of online learning. She describes her experience as surprisingly effective and rewarding, especially how other students in the course organized themselves outside of the course space.  Students created Google Hangouts and used other social media as tools to collaborate and discuss lesson content. Some even organized physical world meet-ups based on geographic place to further discuss and expand each other’s understanding of the course content. “I was part of a noisy, active, earnest, often contentious, and usually interesting group of students” (Kirschner). Her experience provides some helpful understanding of the context found in the discussion groups that sprouted up around the course, showing the value of community elements in such a setting.

The peer interaction that’s common in MOOCs may be possible because of the massive scale and number of students who enroll in each one, in large part due to the lack of tuition and advancement of technology.  Their strength comes from connecting different perspectives and communities of students through the course discussions that take place (Kamenetz; Kop 22). One recent study asked participants in online learning environments to describe their learning experience in the context of multiple communities and found that there’s a discernible importance of expressing new perspectives across multiple communities that spring from online courses. From these different perspectives, researchers have found that students are able to advance and expand their knowledge more than they would’ve been able to do in the confines of a single community or academic environment (Tugba Ozturk and Ozcinar).

Similarly, a Canadian study shows interaction among diverse communities of participants fosters successful learning. Students become active participants and creators in the learning process when enabled by the connectivist nature of MOOC programs. This community aspect of MOOCs, in the interactive web 2.0 sense, presents the greatest potential over online instruction of the past (Kop and Carroll 8). Learning is most “likely to occur when many self-organizing agents interact frequently and openly . . . [when] agents and system co-evolve” (Williams, Karousou and Mackness 45).

Academic leaders in the United Kingdom recently created an online platform called Cloudworks to facilitate online learning in a multitude of contexts such as seminars, blogs, and other industry advancement topics. While their goal was to share resources among educators about how to teach via an online medium or cloud, the space actually mimics a MOOC in the ways it’s become a space of informational flows. Considering the online education sphere, participatory technologies are quickly generating new connections and access to “distributed intelligence” that fosters activities such as “flash debates, open reviews, and reading circles” (Conole, Galley and Culver 134).

Social creativity provides a greater sense of learning and accomplishment than individual creativity because it incorporates shared knowledge from everyone in a community. “Much of our intelligence and creativity results from interaction and collaboration with other individuals” (Csikszentmihalyi, as cited in Kop and Carroll). MOOC platforms are clearly at an advantage over their traditional institutionally based online predecessors. Their efficacy is rooted in the collectivist environment’s fostering of communal interaction and learning. “A course is not a book but a journey, led by an expert, and taken in the company of fellow travelers on a common quest for knowledge” (Kirscher).

Nevertheless, researchers emphasize a fine balance in which there needs to be a high quality of resources available from a high quality instructor, as well as open freedom and mechanisms for students to collaborate.  They also point to the importance of practicing constraint against complete freedom. In this regard they believe online education can achieve what it’s set out to do. “There is a need for a shift from a monolithic learning environment in which everything must be controlled and predictable to a more pluralistic learning ecology in which prescriptive and emergent application domains and modes of learning have their place, and in which it is possible to celebrate the unpredictable” (Williams, Karousou and Mackness 55). In fact, Coursera recently began an arrangement with Antioch University to blend Coursera with its existing classes (Delbanco).

The Path Forward

Given all the positive and negative aspects of self-directed learning versus formalized education, perhaps the best way forward for education is an intricate organization of a MOOCs and traditional classroom instruction. Learning online can free up classroom time to be utilized for interactive project based learning discussion, field trips, and hands on practice (Kamenetz; Tamburri). “Emergence is not a panacea, it is an option . . . preferably integrated within – an overall, inclusive learning ecology, along with prescriptive learning as and where appropriate” (Williams, Karousou and Mackness 54).

The keystone to future education may just be rooted in interactivity among students who come from different background communities and are able to bring new perspectives to their lessons and each other. MOOCs promise to be a good addition to higher education not only because they make knowledge available to virtually everyone in the world, but also because they use technology to set up spaces that can inspire interaction between people of similar and different backgrounds and inspire innovative new ideas and ways of learning (Kop and Carroll).

Conceivably, connectivism best describes the next step in the evolution of education. Some already say classroom learning is inadequate. The interactivity and connectivism of multicultural learners is coming together to bridge perceptions of course topics in a way that advances their intellectual potential (Bell).

At this time many consider that there may not be a clear answer as to what sustainable role MOOCs will have on the future of education. However, the communal properties of free courses being offered online seem to be the most important to the future of higher education. Connectivism, enabled by the advance of new technology and internet access may be the biggest reason why this version of online learning appears stronger and more promising than it was ten or fifteen years ago. A balance between openness and constraint which emphasizes the use of peer interaction within the experience is probably the best way to begin the necessary evolution of our higher education system.



Works Cited

Balch, Tucker. About MOOC Completion Rates: The Improtance of Student Investment. 6 January 2013. Article. 16 March 2013.

Bell, Frances. “Network Theories for technology-enabled learning and social change: Connectivism and Actor Network theory.” Handbook and Abstracts for the seventh International Conference on Networked Learning 2010. Lancaster, UK: University of Lancaster, 2010. 526-533. Book. March 2013.

Conole, Grainne, Rebecca Galley and Juliette Culver. “Frameworks for Understanding the Nature of Interactions, Networking, and Community in a Social Networking Site for Academic Practice.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 12.3 (2011): 120-138. Internet. March 2013.

Coursera. Pedagogy. 2013. Web Page. 18 April 2013.https://www.coursera.org/about/pedagogy.

Cusumano, Michael A. Viewpoints. 1 April 2013. Document. 3 April 2013. http://mitsloan.mit.edu/shared/ods/documents/High-Costs-of-Free-Online-Education.pdf&PubID=5082.

Davidson, Cathy. If MOOCs are the answer, what is the question? 7 February 2013. Website. 16 March 2013.

Delbanco, Andrew. “MOOCs of Hazard.” The New Republic 31 March 2013. web page.http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112731/moocs-will-online-education-ruin-university-experience

Kamenetz, Anya. How Coursera Free Online Education Service Will School Us All. 8 August 2012. Article. 16 March 2013.http://www.fastcompany.com/3000042/how-coursera-free-online-education-service-will-school-us-all

Kirscher, Ann. “A Pioneer in Online Education Tries a MOOC.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (2012): n/a. Trade Journal.

Kop, Rita and Fiona Carroll. “Cloud Computing and Creativity: Learning on a Massive Open Online Course.” European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning (2010): n/a. Internet. March 2013. .

Kop, Rita. “The Challenges to Connectivist Learning on Open Online Networks: Learning Experiences During a Massive Open Online Course.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning (2011): 19-37. Report.

Miller, Vincent. Understanding Digital Culture. London: SAGE, 2011. Book.

Quinton, Sophie. The Path to a Debt Free College Degree. 15 March 2013. article. 16 March 2013. http://www.nationaljournal.com/next-economy/solutions-bank/the-path-to-a-debt-free-college-degree-20130315?page=2.

Regalado, Antonio. The Most Important Education Technology in 200 Years. 2 November 2012. article. 12 March 2013. http://www.technologyreview.com/news/506351/the-most-important-education-technology-in-200-years/.

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Skiba, Diane J. “Disruption in Higher Education: Massively Open Online Courses.” Nursing Education Perspectives December 2012: 416-417. Report.

Tamburri, Rosanna. All About MOOCs. 7 November 2012. Website. 12 March 2013.

Tugba Ozturk, Hayriye and Huseyin Ozcinar. “Learning in Multiple Communities from the Perspective of Knowledge Capital.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 14.1 (2013): 205-221. Internet. March 2013.

Williams, Roy, Regina Karousou and Jenny Mackness. “Emergent Learning and Learning Ecologies in Web 2.0.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 12.3 (2011): n/a. internet.

Young, Jeffrey R. A Self Appointed Teacher. 6 June 2010. Article. 4 April 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/A-Self-Appointed-Teacher-Runs/65793/.

Yuan, Li and Stephen Powell. “MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education.” March 2013. JISC Cetis Publications. Document. 4 April 2013. http://publications.cetis.ac.uk/2013/667.

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