Are We Running a MOOC? And if so, why?

I have had the honor and the privilege of serving on the Advisory Board to the MIT OpenCourseWare project since its inception over 10 years ago. From that vantage point, followed by my tenure as UNESCO’s Assistant Director General for Education, and now as SVP for academic strategy at Kaplan Higher Education Group, I have had a front row seat to watching, participating in, and learning from the open courseware revolution.

By my estimation, the education world went through the tipping point of radical change when established institutions, like those in the EdX consortium, jumped into the Open Resource world with both feet by airing MOOCs. Whatever their intentions might have been, the immediate external effect was the legitimization of both open and free courses as well as the dramatically different modes of learning and assessment that they suggest.

So, the questions today are 1.) Is the world running a MOOC? And 2.) If so, why?

The answer to the first question is an unequivocal “yes,” BUT — and this is a big but — MOOCs are not the main point of this revolution. It is one thing to be the lever of change, and even one artifact of change, but it is quite another to be the change itself. And MOOCs, as critical as they have been to this change process, are early exemplars, legitimizers, and levers. But they are not the heart of the change or the change itself.

The larger change, supported by the very technology that allowed the Global Open Courseware Consortium, Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, and even Kaplan University Open Learning to grow and thrive, is our accelerating ability to reorganize and redesign the traditional higher education proposition in innumerable ways that are more learning and learner-centered, with higher quality and lower cost. So when you encounter Degreed, OpenStudy, or any of the rapidly expanding number of new organizational forms, you are experiencing the higher education world running a MOOC.

Now, why is this happening? At the risk of sounding flippant, I say, “Because it can.” That is the truth of the matter. To quote my friend and colleague, Dr. Don Norris, the post-traditional world is supported by digital capacities that drive “free-range” learning. Free range learning captures perfectly the shift of responsibility for and control of learning, curriculum, and assessment from college campuses and faculty to the people in the communities that surround them. Are there “quality issues” as many charge? Of course there are. Any time new ground is broken mistakes are made. But as we go forward it will be important to draw the clear distinction between “different” and “poor quality.” Quality is no longer found in the academic inputs alone. Now it is exemplified in the results.

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