The pleasures of self-determined learning: Massive Open Online Courses

It’s hard to collect ideas about the future of education without – rather sooner than later – coming across a smoothly pronouncable acronym: MOOCs, short for Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs are based on the idea of publishing high quality lectures about any imaginable subject on the web in a format that makes them accessible to interested people all around the world – for free.
And if you happen to picture a selection of undoubtedly useful, but rather superficial video tutorials one might watch out of instant necessities…be happy, you’re wrong. Some examples: Udacity is a spin-off by Stanford University, Coursera collaborates with the University of Washington, the Georgia Institute of Technology and many others. Lectures go way beyond isolated 20 minutes how-to-videos, but rather represent modules of approximately six to ten weeks where you can gain deep understanding of a specific subject, be it Model Thinking or History of Rock, Medical Neuroscience or Operations Management.

It’s not a coincidence that MOOCs also made it to a top rank in the latest NMC Horizon Report. Presented by the New Media Consortium, an international non-profit organisation of learning focused organisations such as universities, colleges, museums, the annual publication aims at „scanning“ upcoming technologies for their potential for learning and teaching. In the freshly published 2013 edition, MOOCs are listed as one of the most interesting trends on a short-term horizon, very likely to dramatically increase in significance within the next 12 months.

MOOCs enable you to learn what you’ve always wanted to know


Focus lies, however, on the word ENABLE. No one forces you to study. No one makes you sign attendance lists, asks for tuition fees (that might make you want to get value aka diplomas for your money), cares if you ever take your finals or drop out after the honeymoon phase when the subject of choice turns out to require differential equitations. No one even guarantees you presentable results in the shape of certificates, ECTS-credits or academic titles. And still, there is somebody to whom your commitment to MOOC will make a crucial difference: YOU.


Think of what it means for inquisitive individuals in underprivileged areas of the world when access to a computer with internet connection means access to proper instruction and structured knowledge acquisition at the same time. An extended article about MOOCs in Time Magazine includes the interesting story of a young Pakistani girl and her studies of physics – first on Youtube, then on Udacity.

MOOCs are more than recordings of offline lectures uploaded to the web


The quality of existing MOOCs is already remarkably promising: They go way beyond simple recordings of offline lectures put online. They are specifically designed to reach a much higher number of students than a „classic“ lecture and follow pedagogical principles such as the connectivist paradigm which make them appropriate for asychronous, self organised learning and still provide feedback loops and moments of interaction with instructors and peers.

The simple pleasure that knowledge can give


But on top of all that, there is another dimension that MOOCs add – or possibly: bring back – to our perception of education. The list of classes on Coursera or Udacity (or any other of the exciting MOOC-project) is not a confrontation with everything „one could have been unless unfortunate circumstances had prevented one from learning the right things“. It’s a confrontation with everything one can still become by starting to learn them. Not for the sake of diplomas, or rewards, maybe not even with the perspective of an immediate career change. But for the simple pleasure that knowledge can give. And the responsibility is entirely handed back to where it belongs at the end of the day: The learner.

A humoristic, yet very informative and honest insight into the current reality of MOOCs is given by Jörn Loviscach and TED-speaker Sebastian Wernicke in their talk about the subject at the Chaos Communication Congress – “Millions of Lessons Learned on Electronic Napkins”


Header Image(s) from Pixabay & Gratisography

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