MOOCs: Why now?

This is a question that came to mind while I was at CNI last month, and I think it is a very important one. There are a lot of players getting involved in the promotion and development of MOOCs in higher education, and not all of them have the improvement of teaching and learning as their primary objective. Understanding the various agendas and motivations is critical if we are to take advantage of the attention and funding being directed toward these kinds of initiatives.

So: Why now?

Distance education isn’t new.

The Internet isn’t new.

The Web isn’t new.

E-learning isn’t new.

Open learning isn’t new.

This is a time of extreme financial crisis for most institutions of higher education, so there should be no crazy money available for ego projects.

And yet, we have major universities investing millions of dollars in initiatives to make their teaching and learning experience, supposedly one of their key value offerings, available to anyone for free.

Why now?

I have some ideas to potential answers to this question, but for now I think I will just let this question stand as-is.

I don’t think there is a simple answer to this question, nor do I believe that the answers are the same at every university.

I do feel very strongly, though, that anyone who cares at all about the teaching and learning that goes on in higher education needs to think about this question in their own context. They need to not only pay attention to what is happening at their college or university, but get involved in the discussions and decision-making that is happening.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe there is a tremendous amount of potential in MOOCs to do good in the world, and this renewed, wide-spread interest in teaching and learning has if anything the potential to provide the impetus for a much-needed review and revision of how teaching and learning takes place in higher education.

However, we owe it to ourselves and to our institutions to question the fundamentals of these initiatives and make sure that the priorities are in line with our goals and values.

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