On Open Education and MOOCs

Rebecca R. Falkoff
September 03, 2010
Image of the Open Education logo, a green book.

In an August 29 Chronicle of Higher Education article entitled “Online, Bigger Classes May Be Better Classes,” Marc Parry describes recent experiments in distance learning known as Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.  

Perhaps the most celebrated of such experiments is a 2008 University of Manitoba course on learning theory team-taught by Steven Downes and George Siemens, whose 25 for-credit students were joined by 2,300 non-paying participants.  What resulted was an exciting proliferation of debate across diverse online venues, as well as a series of logistical problems: forums flooded with spam and other disruptive posts, an overwhelming amount of material of dubious quality, and privacy concerns. 

The MOOC grows from the Open Education movement, which has a strong presence at some of the nation’s top universities in pioneering programs like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, University of Michigan’s OpenMichigan, Berkeley’s own Webcast program, and Carnegie Mellon’s OpenLearningInitiative, which boasts: “No Instructors, No Credit, No Charge.” 

But MOOCs represent something more radical than the free distribution of course materials: a refiguring of the very site of learning and of the role of the instructor.  In the MOOC, the instructor both inspires and curates an outpouring of student-generated content. 

What emerges from the readers’ comments on the article is a lively discussion about education and pedagogy.  One commenter, Chedept, writes: “I'm all for opening up teaching--making it more accessible, relevant, transparent.  But there's a point at which it's no longer teaching, even if some learning is going on,” and asks:  “How is what is being done here different than, say, what any number of people or groups are doing with sites and blogs?” Wendy Drexler, a postdoctoral assistant at the University of Florida who took the Downes-Siemens course and will help lead a new MOOC about technology and learning, reformulates Chedept’s question: “At what point does content become a course?”  The answer, for the MOOC, may be at the point at which it ignites an explosion of interaction between students. It’s a powerful idea.