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The Future Of Online Learning Is Massive

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In an ever-changing technological age, acroynms and buzzwords abound. It seems every day there is a new trend to follow and new technology designed to change the world we live in. Among the latest is MOOC, otherwise known as Massive Open Online Courses. Google the term and you'll see that widely reputed publications, from Forbes to The New Yorker, are reporting on the impact this technology will have on the education sector.

In last month's column, I addressed the fact that more and more educational programmes will migrate online - but MOOCs are an entirely different beast. MOOCs represent a new form of online education which basically consists of online videos of real-life lectures. Dubbed 'massive' because thousands of students can enrol at a time, it is also deemed open as anyone with an Internet connection can sign up.

While the rise of MOOCs has been swelling for some time, when institutions as highly recognised as Harvard come on board, it becomes more than a trend and more a way of life. As reported by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker magazine, one of Harvard's first massive online learning courses saw an enrolment of over 36,000.

"Many people think that MOOCs are the future of higher education in America. In the past two years, Harvard, M.I.T., Caltech, and the University of Texas have together pledged tens of millions of dollars to MOOC development," writes Heller. "Many other élite schools, from U.C. Berkeley to Princeton, have similarly climbed aboard. Their stated goal is democratic reach."

Generally speaking, MOOCs can level the playing field. By design, they are incredibly flexible, diverse in their range of subjects, open to anyone, and free. They often offer a certificate of completion or participation of some form, for those who stick with them to the end.

While they originally gained popularity in the US, as recently reported in The Guardian, MOOCs are no longer an American phenomenon. This is exemplified by last month's launch of FutureLearn by the Open University, the UK equivalent of fast-rising US brand, Coursera.

"The response has been incredible, with more than three million people registering worldwide," writes Guardian reporter Richard Doughty. "Meanwhile, last year, Edinburgh University became the first non-US institution to join Coursera's partnership, comprising 13 universities."

But are MOOCs worthy of the hype? Not everyone has such glowing praise for this massive method of learning. According to Dr. Jeff Borden, a contributor to Wired Magazine, the hype for MOOCs may be undeserved, citing that MOOCs "often took away from the real conversation of eLearning," he writes. "At the end of the day, these massive courses may just be another way that any student can learn at any time."

With so much information available, and with so much media attention surrounding the subject, what are the pros and cons for the average student?

The pros

Low cost: Currently, until institutions can find a way to charge for MOOCs, they are free or nearly free

Accessibility: When many universities, particularly those in the US, are in danger of over-crowding, MOOCs provide a simple solution, allowing students to study from anywhere

Knowledge: If students take their MOOC course seriously, they are able to gain the knowledge they seek. Online tests and discussions ensure the material is understandable and retained

Universality: Most MOOC courses bring together people from all over the world - which means educational options previously unavailable to students are now accessible. It also unites students together in forums to provide a global perspective

The cons

Lack of hands-on learning: No matter the experience of the lecturer, or the in-depth nature of the course, online learning cannot replace direct access to a tutor, group interaction and meaningful communication that comes from attending a 'real-life' course

Insufficient measurement of knowledge gained: Given the massive enrolment numbers, MOOCs by nature make it impossible to grade papers or exams, leaving these measurements down to inflexible computer-driven tests

High drop-out rates: Given the lack of human interaction, MOOCs suffer from high dropout rates. In fact, according to Heller, when conducted entirely online, "dropout rates are typically higher than 90%"

In the end, the future of MOOCs will depend on both the teachers who teach them, and the students who demand them. Gregory Nagy, a Harvard lecturer, has certainly raised the bar high. According to the Harvard site, "participants in [his] inaugural session completed the challenging material at promising rates. More importantly, participants describe being transformed by the content." With over 36,000 students enrolled across over 170 countries, it seems likely that Harvard's investment in MOOCs will continue.

Ultimately, as the world's largest provider of marketing courses, we know that our success depends on offering programmes in online, offline and blended formats. Which format our London School of Marketing students prefer comes down to a matter of personal choice, as each provides different benefits. While campus-based courses offer a fixed schedule and more social interaction, online courses offer students the freedom to set their own pace.

Across the sector, and around the world, with a more globally connected student base, and with rising numbers of students demanding a better degree of education, MOOCs certainly hold promise. As with the institutions offering these courses, the rise of MOOCs will continue as long as they continue to adapt to the times.