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MOOCs for Good

Posted in Higher Education on November 13, 2012 by

Lately there’s been a ton of press around massive open online courses. MOOCs are a “tsunami,” a “seismic shift“; the New York Times says 2012 is the “year of the MOOC.”

People are right to be excited. But why?

Much of the recent coverage focuses on numbers: the dozens of top-shelf universities putting their professors online through Coursera, the 160,000 students who enrolled in Udacity’s Artificial Intelligence course, the 100,000+ students who signed up for Harvard’s first edX courses.

But “massive” as they are, MOOCs represent a very small percentage of college courses and a nearly zero percentage of for-credit courses. It’s even less when you judge them by the students who actually finish the course rather than just register (22,000 for Udacity’s AI course).

But it’s only been a year since the famous Stanford AI courses. The real reason people are so excited about MOOCs is not because of what they are now, but because of the disruptive power that they represent. Education has always had an access problem. People intuitively understand that creating video versions of the world’s great classroom experiences (and I’m not necessarily saying that today’s MOOCs are the world’s great classroom experiences, but they could be forerunners) means we can solve this problem.

Online courses taught by highly exceptional teachers can now be shared with anyone regardless of circumstance. In wealthy nations, such courses can be used as supplements or offer subjects that students typically don’t have access to (how many US schools teach Mandarin?).

Actually getting this vision accomplished is almost impossibly difficult work. I believe that doing so is the single most important thing that the human race can accomplish in the next 20 years.

Correction: The original version of this article appeared in the November issue of Knerd Dispatch, the Knewton newsletter. That version incorrectly stated that MOOCs represent a nearly zero percentage of for-profit college courses, rather than for-credit courses. We regret the error.