Mark Glaser of PBS Mediashift recently pulled together a panel of experts for an online chat about how massive open online courses (MOOCs) are affecting universities and professional education. Some exceprts from the fascinating 40-minute exchange are below.
Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas, has been running MOOCs on journalism topics since 2012.
One of the surprising things about these courses is how many non-journalists are taking them, Alves said. There is a hunger for learning the journalistic skills of gathering, verifying and presenting information, he said.
(Many of my 2,000 fellow students were non-journalists when I took the center's course on data visualization offered by Alberto Cairo.)
Another surprise, Alves said, was that 75 percent of people in the data visualization MOOC said the experience was better than face-to-face instruction. He attributes this to the fact that so many students formed communities in social media and helped educate each other.
The Knight Center is now offering its eighth MOOC, this one on "Social Media for Journalists" with 6,300 people enrolled from 149 countries. In all, 28,000 people have enrolled in the free MOOCs in the first year.
No threat to universities
Alves doesn't see these MOOCs as a threat to university courses since they are workshops on very specific topics such as data journalism and entrepreneurial journalism. He is not bothered by the fact that not everyone who signs up for the courses does not finish them.
"Our MOOCs are a human experience. This is not a book. It's not a self-directed course. It has a beginning, middle and an end, and it is led by an instructor. These aren't college classes. It's a workshop and a community. We don't expect that everyone who comes will do it. We don't mind if you come, watch a video and go." -- Rosental Alves
Daniel Seaton, an MIT postdoc who co-authored a study of MIT's and Harvard's MOOC experiences, told how developers of one of the physics MOOCs expected that it would attract a global audience of students excited about physics.
To their surprise, half of the enrollees were physics teachers. So in later versions of the course, developers shaped the course material with that audience in mind.
Seaton said the variety of approaches in MOOCs, from for-credit courses with exams to informal online communities, makes it difficult to make generalizations. However, he added that about two-thirds of those taking the courses do not have a degree, which suggests that MOOCs are a force for the democratization of information.
The teachers who prepare MOOCs are often shocked by how much work is required to prepare them, Seaton said. All of the technology and course material have to be developed from zero.
Insane college costs
Reuters columnist Felix Salmon hopes that MOOCs might help bring down the "insane" cost of a university education in the U.S. by allowing students to take courses outside of the campus setting. He suggested that some second- and third-tier universities might be able to offer courses by professors of elite universities via MOOCs and thus improve quality at lower cost.
Universities have been on a spending binge for amenities like sports facilities that have little to do with education but drive up its cost, Salmon said.
As for whether MOOCs threaten the business model of universities, he said, "I'm worried more about students than about schools. You can't afford to go to college, and you can't afford to NOT go to college." The two trends, he suggested, will lead to a greater income gap and socioeconomic divide as fewer students from families of modest or low income will be able to benefit from higher education.
"The real value of MOOCs is making education more available and more affordable," Salmon said.
For universities, MOOCs could be valuable through the data that they bring about the people enrolled in courses. For-profit education organizations should also be able to find a business model in MOOCs and help bring down the cost of the traditional university education, he believes.
Technology in its infancy
Andrew Lih of American University said that the technology and teaching methods of MOOCs are relatively unsophisticated now, which makes the experience less than ideal.
He described his own unhappy experience in the data visualization course mentioned above that was offered by the Knight Center. He had signed up because he wanted to experience the teaching of a master in the field of data visualization, Alberto Cairo.
Instead, he found himself overwhelmed by the "firehose of commentary" from the course participants. "Even just the introduction section was too much to consume. It was tough to make sense of the stream of stuff coming in. It was hard for me to sift through it." He abandoned the course.
Course designers should think more like architects or urban planners, he said, because they design spaces to maximize positive interactions among people.
One of the advantages of living on a university campus, Lih said, is the opportunity for students and professors of different departments to rub shoulders and interact. This serendipity should be part of MOOC design, he suggested.
This post originally appeared on the blog News Entrepreneurs. It is published on IJNet with the author's permission.
James Breiner is a consultant in online journalism and leadership. He is a former co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University and a former Knight International Journalism Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. He is bilingual in Spanish and English. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Image CC-licensed on Flickr via The Next Web.