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Monday, October 21, 2013

The Rise of the MOOCs - Education Revolution in Motion

Access to high quality education material has never been easier and cheaper than now. MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are one concrete manifestation of this. You could say it really started with MIT OpenCourseWare. Inspired by the success of Stanford's AI MOOC Sebastian Thrun established Udacity. Of course Udacity isn't the only MOOC provider as examples such as Coursera, edX, Udemy and Khan Academy show.

The MOOCs differ from traditional academic training somewhat. They come with their own benefits and challenges. By definition they are massive. You can easily have another hundred thousand peers studying with you. Of course dropout rate can be consequently somewhat high. It can be as high as 85-95%. But is that an issue really?

This highlights one of the key differences between traditional education and MOOCs. In former you complete courses so you might earn a degree. People completing MOOCs are not usually in it for a degree. Rather they learn because they want to. You have to be very motivated to complete these courses.

How Do MOOCs Work?

Due to obvious constraints the course format is somewhat different than in the real world. In Udacity's case the courses have been split into modules that contain smaller video units. Every once in a while the lecturer might quiz you and then it is up to you to provide an answer. This can be in form of a multiple selection question or a programming assignment. Coursera appears to use a bit different format. They provide both video and text material. In addition there are separate assignments to complete during the course.

At best the courses can be just great and provide you a very good idea of what the topic is about. So far one of my favorites has been Steve Blank's course on How to Build a Startup. He goes through various aspects of Osterwalder's Business Model Canvas in detail. I would not say just passing the course is enough but it is definitely a very good starting point.

Udacity's course on Game Development was bit of a disappointment for me personally. The quality of the exercises varied greatly. Sometimes they were tough to complete even with some previous experience under your belt. You can only imagine how difficult it can be for a complete beginner who has to learn it all. Fortunately there are support systems in place in a format resembling Stack Overflow that allow you to receive some assistance from your peers.

Although the first edition of the course could have been better there is a chance they will improve the course based on feedback. This is something that has happened in the case of their course on Interactive 3D Graphics, a course I have yet to fully complete.

Pros and Cons of MOOCs

I would say MOOCs are a very nice step towards the right direction. They democratize education somewhat. You may benefit from world class education without having to enter a prestigious school with heavy cost. It all comes down to your willingness to learn.

You will miss some of the benefits of a traditional organization. One of the core benefits of the highest ranking organizations is that they pool a lot of talent together. Many of those people will be the leaders of tomorrow. It is hard to put a monetary value on these sort of connections. It is hard, if not impossible, to reach the same with communities surrounding MOOCs.

You will also miss the benefit of having an actual degree. Although at least here in Finland the value of those has decreased as more and more people have them. It is not a real differentiator on the job market. It is more about what you can actually do and have done rather than what kind of papers you have in your pocket. That definitely diminishes this downside although I believe this could depend a lot on the region.

It is possible to get some certifications from MOOC providers. This is one of the ways they make money. Even more interesting is that they can work as a proxy between skilled workforce and employers. If you get really lucky, you could end up with a job!

The Future of MOOCs

There are a lot of courses out there. And more keep on appearing. This also poses a problem. How can you develop courses that serve their audience well? As I mentioned earlier a course might have a truly massive amount of people participating. How do you create a course that offers something to each of them?

I believe we will see some sort of mass customization in some point. Rather than building a course and hoping it works for the most we will see more modular courses that can be tailored based on individual needs. In case you need more help with certain topics your "course" will simply have more material on those.

I think the concept of course will morph somewhat too. It feels very artificial and something stemming from the requirements of academia. You have to fit everything in semesters after all. There is no such need in case of MOOCs. Instead it would be possible to build a learning path for each student based on their needs. A path would be something leading the student towards her learning goals.

Of course the problem with mass customization is that it can be somewhat difficult to do it right. The advantage of a course format is that you can build a course upon a narrative. A path is something more complex perhaps.

I also expect to see new business models to appear around MOOCs. Perhaps we will see some elements of the "old world", such as tutoring in digital format. I know there are online tutoring services already. I expect to see tighter integration between MOOCs and these kind of services, though.


All in all MOOCs seem like a very welcome change to me. They usher a new era in education. Never before has it been easier to have access to an incredible amount of material literally for free. I don't expect the old institutions to go away. Rather I believe they will adapt to the situation. This is already apparent by the way some prestigious universities share their material. It is also in their benefit as it allows them to push the quality of their education further and provides transparency.

Given degrees don't have the value they used to have, MOOCs provide an excellent way to show that you are interested and more importantly actually to learn more about topics you enjoy. They also provide you a possible edge on the job market and allow to demonstrate your learning ability. As a side benefit you might get some cool projects done to showcase your prowess in a very concrete way.

If you have not given MOOCs a go yet, pick a course you find interesting and give it a go. It will require some time commitment on your behalf but it just could be worth it in the end.