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Posted at 02:25 PM ET, 09/24/2012

What in the world is a MOOC?


In the last few weeks, the word “MOOC” has become part of the higher education lexicon. The cute little acronym has been thrown around by administrators in suits-only meetings, casually dropped by blogging or vlogging faculty, and explained by student newspapers. Earlier this month, a PhD student and blogger in Canada declared: “I've watched agog as the word MOOC has proliferated and spiralled into the higher education buzzword of the year.”

So, what in the world is a MOOC? It’s a “Massive Open Online Course” that anyone with an Internet connection can attend for free. These classes are aimed at expanding a university’s reach from thousands of tuition-paying students who live in town, to millions of students around the world.

I’ve seen the term gain traction in the last few months as more colleges sign up to be part of collaborations like Coursera, a for-profit company started in 2011 by two Stanford University computer science professors. A number of big-name schools — including Princeton University and the University of Virginia — have partnered with Coursera to offer free, no-credit courses online.

But everyone is still waiting to see how this experiment will work and what role MOOCs will play in higher education, especially the funding of higher education. Here are a couple of MOOC predictions, explanations and other thoughts from around the web:

* Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin is teaching a MOOC this semester and blogging about the experience: “After just one week of my course, I’ve seen a lot of learning going on, but it wasn’t in the lectures. Even if I’d been able to see each student watching the lecture, I would not have seen much learning going on, if any. Rather, the learning I saw was on the discussion forums, primarily the ones focused on the assignments I gave out after each lecture. As I explained to the students, the course assignments and the associated forum discussions are the heart of the course.” (Blog: MOOCtalk.)

* University of Virginia professor of media studies and law Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “The strangest thing about this MOOC obsession is the idea that something that very wealthy private institutions offer for free, at a loss, as a service to humanity, must somehow represent the magic numbers in the higher-education lottery. It’s new, it’s ‘innovative,’ and it’s big, the thinking goes. So it must be the answer.” (Full columns: “What’s the Matter With MOOCs?” and “Going Public the U-Va. Way.” And here’s another column from the student newspaper: A MOOC Point.)

* Georgetown University Provost Robert Groves blogged: “The ability of massive open online courses to deliver exactly the same experience simultaneously to thousands and thousands of students breaks the mold of traditional university education.  We can all see their potential to increase access to education and reduce the costs of education.” (Full blog post: “Our Moment in Time.”)

* Several TIME magazine staffers have enrolled in MOOCs this semester, including technology writer Harry McCracken who is taking a class through University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. One of his observations: “There are 76,000 people registered for the class, which is more than twice the entire current enrollment for my alma mater, Boston University. Only 13,000 turned in the first written assignment on time. I wonder how many of us will still be at it when the final exam rolls around?” (Full column: “MOOC Brigade: Back to School, 26 Years Later.”)

For more higher education news, you can follow me on Facebook and Twitter. And here are some other articles you might enjoy:

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By  |  02:25 PM ET, 09/24/2012

 
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