When the first movable-type printing press began churning out books in 1439, knowledge that belonged to an elite few flowed to masses of hungry learners.
This year, something similar happened. Select courses taught at places like Stanford on subjects like physics were offered for free online, meaning that a level of education once available only to Ivy League-level college students is now an option in places like Pakistan, Ghana and Tibet.
These courses, called Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs) make education cheaper and more accessible, but some say they have potential to undermine the current profit model.
"This transition to digital learning is as significant as when we first began to learn from books," said Karen Cator, director of the U.S. Office of Educational Technology. "Now we have a whole new opportunity to learn, with expert explanations, simulations and models of complex ideas. It's interesting and exciting, and it also needs continued research."
What's a MOOC?
Online classes have been around for decades, providing a convenient, if rather dull, learning environment for correspondence courses and basic education. MOOCs have much more going for them: the ability to turn a Harvard professor's best course into a global learning community via the Internet, usually at no cost to the learner.
To get an idea of what a typical MOOC is like, the nine-week Introduction of Astronomy course available through the Coursera website at coursera.org is a good place to start. The class is taught by Duke University physics professor Ronen Plesser, whose video course introduction paints a glowing picture of a splendorous universe. Tests and assignments are graded automatically, and the course workload takes six to eight hours per week. No college credit is given, but students can pay to get a certificate proving they completed the course.
In the past year, interest in MOOCs like this one have exploded. Upstart companies that provide the classes have seen dramatic growth. Coursera, one of them, has 2 million subscribers and partners with schools like Stanford, Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities to provide content.
MOOCs have been around for at least five years. One of the first people to create one was Utah State University professor David Wiley, who found a way to invite people all over the world to interact within a 2007 class he was teaching on the USU campus, via the Internet.
In Canada, educational technologists David Cormier and Bryan Alexander hit upon a similar idea at around the same time, and christened their online learning community a "MOOC" — Massive Open Online Course — in 2008. A buzzword was born, albeit one that sounds like a coughing cow when pronounced.
Wiley's first open online class adapted the community-driven idea behind open source software and applied it to educational content, creating a learning environment where everything happened online.
"You put so much work into building a course and getting it ready to offer, and you have this feeling that there are a lot of people in the world whose lives would be blessed if they had a chance to learn some of the things you are teaching," Wiley said. "It turns out to be very little extra effort to put it all online, and do it in such a way that anyone can participate."
Endless replication of a good teacher's work creates tantalizing possibilities, said Cator: "Every teacher doesn't have to do the whole thing over themselves. We will have the best-of-the-best playlist of lectures and interactions, and we'll begin to understand which are most helpful for different kinds of students."
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