MOOC: ‘Every letter is negotiable’

What’s in a name? Or, more accurately, what’s in an acronym? Lots, it turns out, and every letter can have different meanings.

MOOC means different things to different people in higher education.

That was the question at the center of a panel discussion Oct. 17 at the EDUCAUSE 2013 conference in Anaheim, Cal., called “To MOOC, or Not to MOOC?”

Massive open online courses were heavily featured in this year’s conference, the first year the annual instructional technology gathering devoted any sessions specifically to the popular online courses. The session was just one of at least nine on this week’s agenda to focus on MOOCs.

Jarl Jonas, director of CourseSites at Blackboard Inc., started the panel discussion by displaying the phrase, “MOOC, every letter is negotiable,” including the letter “M.”

“How massive is massive?” Jonas asked. “Is teaching 1,000 plus students a quality experience? The openness of that, does it mean it’s free? Does it mean we don’t require prerequisites?”

Echoing comments made by Katie Blot, Blackboard’s president of education services, at an earlier panel, Jonas said the MOOC movement is not a trend in and of itself, but a result of educators participating in three other trends: open access, experimentation, and showcase.

“We are seeing this as just one more step in the online learning continuum,” he said.

Susan Zvacek, senior director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and Learning Technologies, took that a step further, saying that MOOCs are a tool for education in general, online or otherwise.

She said the reflexive idea that MOOCs are going to replace the classroom or replace the professor is the wrong way to think about the courses.

See Page 2 for details on how MOOCs could “raise the bar” for online education.

The real value of MOOCs, she said, is that they can act as a catalyst for conversations on what teaching and learning requires of instructors and students.

“It’s not MOOCs or,” Zvarcek said. “It’s MOOCs and.”

Similarly, Adam Wandt, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that MOOCs can encourage educators to raise the bar for online learning.

Unlike a failed face-to-face course that would result in some anonymous bad course evaluations, a MOOC happens completely in the public eye, with thousands of students watching it succeed — or crash and burn.

“It’s so publicly available, that it can’t be a failure for my college,” Wandt said.

The panelists agreed that the conversation about MOOCs should remain on improving the online courses, from instructional methods to student success and retention rates.

Offering the online courses for credit, one of the more contentious areas of the MOOC debate, is a discussion that can happen further down the road.

“As far as MOOCs go, it’s not a ‘no,'” said John Fritz, assistant Vice President for instructional technology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “But, it’s a ‘not yet.'”

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