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A massive open online course (MOOC) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user fora that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants (TAs). MOOCs are a recent development in distance education.
MOOCs have received much public attention, partly driven by a handful of experimental courses that attracted 100,000 or more students. In response, hundreds of colleges and universities across the United States are now studying or experimenting with MOOCs and other, related educational technologies. Multiple platforms for offering MOOCs have emerged, including a for-profit company, Coursera, that is developing MOOCs with 107 partner colleges and universities; a nonprofit organization, edX, that is affiliated with a smaller number of university partners (including some that are also partners with Coursera); and a for-profit company, Udacity, that is developing MOOCs largely outside of formal relationships with colleges and universities.
It is important to keep in mind that neither the massive, nor the open, nor the online nature of MOOCs is really new. In the first half of the 20th century, millions of Americans enrolled in correspondence courses as an alternative to formal study at colleges and universities. Such efforts shifted as information technology progressed, first through radio broadcasts of courses produced by many universities in the 1920s and 1930s, and then through teaching using motion pictures and television.
The United Kingdom's Open University began to offer fully certified college courses for credit over television in 1971. Stanford University has used technology to teach engineering courses for the employees of sponsoring companies since 1969. More recently, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Yale University, and the University of California at Berkeley have offered dozens of full, semester-length courses — lectures, readings, problem sets and other assignments — online, free of charge, without examinations or certification. In this context, one might see MOOCs as merely a natural progression of distance learning.
But MOOCs offer something different from radio, video, and even Internet courses of the past. Improvements in bandwidth and software innovations have enabled enormous improvement in the speed and quality of communication among large numbers of students and between students and teachers. The new MOOC technologies should allow teachers to measure student comprehension in real time and adjust the material presented to students to achieve higher levels of competency. These new educational technologies have the potential to allow teachers and schools to move away from measuring student progress merely as the number of hours spent in a classroom, and toward a system that measures outcomes — learning and competency — almost continuously and in real time.
Better measurement of learning and subject matter mastery will allow teachers, their schools, and MOOC platform providers to evolve rapidly toward the pedagogical methods that are most effective. Although the new technologies introduced by MOOCs are still in their infancy, and many questions and challenges remain, . . . they hold the possibility of transforming education at all levels by providing better metrics for educational outcomes, and better alignment of incentives for innovation in pedagogy.
In addition to the potential improvements in learning and teaching that the real-time interactivity of MOOC platforms may provide, the new technologies also permit teaching at scale — connecting large numbers of students to an outstanding teacher, and to each other. This scalability suggests the potential both to increase access to higher education and to reduce its cost.
The first-generation MOOCs introduced in the past two years have been massive, open (that is, free of charge), and online, and most have been full-length courses rather than smaller units of learning. But the fundamental innovations that the MOOC platforms allow — real-time connectivity at scale, feedback, assessment, and continuous improvement — do not require that education be massive or open or divided into the traditional form of semester length courses. There can be fruitful variation on each of these themes.
- "Overview" section: Letter from PCAST to President Obama 1-3 (footnotes omitted) (Dec. 2013) (full-text).
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