Could MOOCs Level the Educational Playing Field?

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have garnered worldwide attention in the past year. Though free online courses have been offered by leading universities such as MIT and Stanford for more than a decade, it was an Artificial Intelligence class taught in the 2011 fall semester that put the “mass” in MOOCs.

The class – taught by Stanford research professor and Google fellow, Sebastian Thrun and his Google Colleague Peter Norvig – attracted 160,000 students across 190 countries. A total of 23,000 students completed the course, a number that left the education world reeling. Inspired by the enthusiastic response, Thrun turned his focus completely to MOOCs and launched Udacity, a site where learners can participate in a variety of high-quality, free classes.

Typically, free online classes contain stale material, no support and no certificate of completion. Udacity and the university-based Edx differ from open courseware sites such as Open Courseware Consortium and Open Culture in that MOOCs are taught on a time schedule. Working on a schedule allows students to follow along with lectures and engage with peers, professors, and guest speakers. Some of these classes also offer certificates of completion.

MOOCs provide classes to motivated learners throughout the world, regardless of financial barriers. What was once only accessible to students of elite universities is now accessible to the masses, and while some are considering MOOCS a threat to university structures, others see it as a step toward a utopian learning model.

A For-Profit University with a Utopian Ideal

It may seem unlikely, but founders of MOOCs are led largely by a passion for egalitarian education than for profit. The need for resources, however, has not gone unnoticed or unaddressed. Thrun, the founder of Udacity, has developed a business model that will join mass education and regionalized recruiting. In essence, this would make Udacity a type of training school that would connect quality students with employers.

Worldwide Impact

In August, Udacity posted a picture of students in West Africa who met at an open university to take the class. Though the benefits of MOOCs are currently limited to English speakers, the courses have reached students across the globe. Decentralized, global education has been a dream since the early days of computer technology, and it was Ivan Illich’s 1971 critical discourse that defined the utopian cornerstone on which MOOCs were built:

“A good educational system should have three purposes: it should provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.”

Lifelong Learning and Refinement of Professional Skills

MOOCs are not limited to those who have been barred access to higher education. Professionals in the technology field, high school students and even grandparents can learn about chemistry, science fiction or algorithms.

Currently MOOCs focus largely on programming and STEM courses in which student performance can be assessed by a computer. For developing nations that hope to enter the tech field, MOOCs could level the playing field by teaching an entire workforce advanced skills.

MOOCs are making strides for democratic education; however, the coursework is too limited to actually serve as a substitute for a college degree. Although these courses will benefit many people across the world, there seems to be little threat, or hope, that the current education model will be dismantled. In fact, the utopian ideals that promote MOOCs have come from professors in top US universities, making MOOCs a new branch of the established order instead of a competing ideology.

Author infoStephanie Brooks is a freelance blogger who regularly contributes her knowledge of education trends to In addition to covering topics related to education, Stephanie also enjoys writing about technology. Feel free to leave questions and comments for her below!

image credits: adapted from Neal Gillis and Dave Cormier video What is a MOOC? 

Updated: July 19, 2018 — 7:27 am

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