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MOOCs: What are they, and how do they compare to studying abroad?

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In the last year, the subject of MOOCs has been hotly discussed – are they really the revolution in large-scale, distance learning which supporters have argued? Or are they all hype which favour egos of professors over the needs of users? Furthermore, how will they affect traditional study abroad?

 

What are MOOCs?

MOOC stands for Massive Online Open Course, and are an evolution of the online degree or course. They are exactly as they are described: courses taken online by anyone with an internet connection and the ambition to learn. Courses are taught to large numbers – numbers far larger than that of traditional online degrees. The distinction lies in not just scale of enrolment, but the way which students learn. Clarissa Shen of Udacity – one of the leading MOOCs providers – spoke to us. ‘We believe that education should be less passive listening (no long lectures) and more active doing’, said Shen. She continued: ‘Our classes are highly interactive, stressing discovery-based learning and carefully scaffolded [sic] exercises to truly engage students.’ Udacity and similar providers also emphasise the social aspect of MOOCs; these include designated forums where help from fellow students can be sought out, and discussions about the material can take place.

 

Positives of MOOCs

Anything which encourages self-improvement, learning and broadening of knowledge is something which we can stand behind – and MOOCs like those which Udacity offer, certainly do so. As Shen says, ‘there isn't a typical Udacity user.’ MOOCs defy age or location, and really seem to embrace the openness and availability of resources which many feel the internet should aspire.

The global aspect should also be noted (something we will discuss further later). Someone in a remote location in Canada (or even further away) can enrol in a MOOC “taught” at a leading institution like Stanford, without leaving the house. It’s a major step in the global ideal of making education available to everyone.

Finally, with buzz terms like ‘social media’ and ‘going social’ flying around in the last few years, MOOCs attempt to utilise this sense of community which is achieved online rather than in reality. You can forge relationships without ever speaking to someone in real life. Forums, groups, streams....these have all gradually conditioned us to initiate communications with strangers based on mutual activities and interests; now education is taking advantage.

 

Negatives of MOOCs

However, as with anything, there are critics to MOOCs too. These doubts lie at the very heart of a wider sociological debate: do we place too much emphasis on our online interactions than we should?

This forms the basis of Carol Edward’s indictment of MOOCs as a rather solitary endeavour in reality; as she describes the forum: ‘Tens of thousands of people leaving hundreds of postings every day is not really comparable to the magic of a small group of people sharing an experience’. Edwards – an instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology – has enrolled in two MOOCs provided by Coursera (twice) and has written of her experience. She considered her experience to be poor, and it may very well be caused by the open door policy of MOOCs when it comes to who can study them; for Edwards, this resulted in interactions with fellow students whose participation was extremely varied (including some who were ‘ignorant of the subject matter’, with ‘weak communication skills’ and at times were even ‘malicious’). 

While this form of education may be embraced by those who are strong self-learners, it may be lost on those seeking the ‘personalised assistance’ and ‘real student support’ of campus-based study. She continues that even the strongest of autodidacts may falter if they suffer a misfortune as can occur, and require an extension on work or mere human support.

MOOCs – for all their fanfare – are still relatively new, and they have yet to produce the completion/pass rates to backup the high numbers in enrolment which form their appeal. Shen is quick to defend these rates which she puts at around 5-15%, saying that they do vary, while promoting those which have done far better like the for-credit courses Udacity offer in partnership with San Jose State University.

 

MOOCs and International Education

We wanted to understand whether we in the international education sector had something to worry about with the onset of MOOCs. Would students eventually forgo travelling abroad to study if they could receive the same quality of education in their own country (in their own bedroom even)? According to our experts and users, the answer is....no.

MOOCs – which are more concerned with tackling passive learning and the practical boundaries which get in the way of those who want to study – are no replacement for study abroad. Both Shen and Edwards dismissed such a comparison; Shen calls them ‘markedly different’, while Edwards likens a MOOC to merely imagining what a meal in a French restaurant to taste like (as opposed to tasting it in person). Going back to Edwards’ experience when interacting with fellow students (or lack thereof), those who study abroad are more likely to establish stronger relationships with a few familiar students throughout their stay.

Shen goes on to emphasise that the strength of MOOCs are their tight focus on an area otherwise unavailable to that student at home, while study abroad goes further to integrate study with total immersion in a new culture. In some ways it would be like asking if the creation of YouTube would remove the appeal of going abroad on holiday. An online experience can only give so much – to fully experience a place, with its sights, sounds and smells, you have to do so in person.

Additionally, a recent study we conducted on the motivations and attitudes of incoming international students found that while we are comfortable conducting a lot of routine and complex tasks online, study is one which we would prefer to do so in person. Of 6,000 international applicants surveyed, 66.5% said they felt the quality of an online degree compared to a standard campus-based degree to be inferior.

 

Clarissa Shen is Vice President of Strategic Business and Marketing here at Udacity.

Carol Edwards is an award-winning Finance instructor with the School of Business at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT).  

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About Author

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Paul Ellett is the editor for Hotcourses Abroad. His role is to plan, produce and share editorial, videos, infographics, eBooks and any other content to inform prospective and current international students about their study abroad experience. When he's not thinking about student visas in Sweden and application deadlines, Paul is an avid fan of comedy podcasts and Nicolas Cage films.