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We’ve been here before. Every new technology promises to transform education.

In the 18th century, the U.S. Postal Service brought correspondence courses. In the 1930s, the big radio networks talked about turning the airwaves into a university for the masses. The Open University, launched in Britain in 1971, promised much the same for television. The Internet produced online learning – now 20-plus years old.

All those technologies had some effect. But traditional universities are still around, and still dominant. Technology didn’t solve the scale problem: One teacher can lecture millions of students online. But truly “teach” them, with personal feedback and interaction?

“There’s an endless faith in education in technology,” said John Meyer, a Stanford University sociologist of education, and skeptic of the latest trends. “Right now, there’s a kind of binge of belief that the Internet will solve the problem.”

But the arrival of MOOCs, barely a year old, has many believing this time is different.

At his desk at a telecom company in the Nigerian capital of Lagos, Ugochukwu Nehemiah used to take his full one-hour lunch break. Now, he quickly devours his meal, then watches his downloaded MOOCs. He’s finished three so far, with two more under way – courses in electronics, business and disruptive innovation, taught by institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Maryland.

Nehemiah needs a master’s to advance at work, but cannot afford the program in England where he’s been admitted. The MOOC learning doesn’t translate into a widely recognized credential, but he cannot get such teaching locally, and it’s helpful regardless.

“It’s a form of self-development,” said Nehemiah, a father of two. “The way I would speak when I have meetings to attend,” he adds, “would be much different than the way I had spoken if I had not taken this course.”

Some MOOCs are only a modest step-up from glorified lecture videos. But the star power of famous professors has helped make them hugely popular.


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