A recent post in the Mind/Shift blog on the dismal completion rates of MOOCs ends with the question of whether or not they are disruptive. For education policy people and trend-watchers this seems to be an important question. But as the article states, and as a little consideration suggests, completion rates may not be the most important thing to think about. I think their very existence is indicative of their disruptive status. From the perspective of an EFL teacher trainer in Japan–and I’m guessing I can speak for many people throughout the world hungry for better-quality education in English–MOOCs are a very significant development.
People in North America (where I hail from) may not be conscious of a few things that we expat English teachers have been noticing for years. The world is getting smaller is one way to describe this major sea change over the last two decades. I can divide my 26 years in Japan into roughly two periods: the age before and after the Internet became available. Yes, before the Internet arrived, I had access to three English newspapers, a dozen or so magazines, lots of movies, and even taped US television–all of which were precious resources we used to build lesson activities with authentic English. But now, everything seems to be available, only a few clicks away. The problem these days though, is that content is not organized and is often not accessible as it is for people from other cultures or with less-than-native English proficiency. In countries like Japan and China, there are large domestic populations and armies of translators and local businesses all too willing to repackage and charge locals for more comprehensive packages of content. This has often created an artificial barrier to access on of content on the web by individuals.
At the same time, however, it has become easier and more common to travel and study abroad and meet and interact with people from other cultures, both in foreign countries and in Japan. Inbound tourism, mostly a collection of international businessmen and their families twenty years ago, has become more frequent and more diverse. What I want to say is, everyone is aware that the world is getting smaller and will continue to do so in the future. They’re just not sure what to do about it exactly.
What does this have to do with MOOCs? Well, the availability and institutional trust value of schools offering MOOCs means a great deal to a great many people in various corners of the world. Anyone can go on the web and practice writing, but a comprehensive course offered, for example, by Duke University is a completely different thing. MOOCs give access to higher education opportunities that can be trusted to people who normally couldn’t or wouldn’t access such opportunities. And what about completion rates? I just don’t see that as an issue. Many people are trying this system out, taking a few cars for a test drive as it were. They are testing both the courses and themselves and getting a better idea of how the combination of these can work. Schools are becoming more sensitive to the needs of such learners, too. That writing course I mentioned is a relatively recent addition to the catalog and obviously aimed at entry-level students.
The signs I see mostly point to positive improvements. The screenshot above is from Coursera‘s website. More courses in more languages, and the option to get real credit for your work. I think we are moving into a new phase here. I regularly recommend courses to friends, colleagues, and students here in Japan, regardless of their nationality. Not taking advantage of these courses is criminally stupid in my opinion, even if that means just watching the videos and lurking around a little. There is much to learn in many different ways. If you haven’t tried it yet, please go to the website and take a look at the offerings. I guarantee you’ll find something that interests you.
Recently, some courses have begun to offer Signature Track registration. It’s a paid service that allows you to experience courses in a way that allows you to earn a verifiable certificate. It seems MOOCs are moving toward a more standard e-learning model. I’m not sure if this is good or bad, but completely free MOOCs may be on their way out. Get ’em while you can.
May 1, 2013 Update: Here is a nice blog article with current stats and comments on MOOC users.