Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Non-Traditional Education: How MOOCs will shape the future of higher education

How MOOCs will shape the future of higher education.

MOOCs are sweeping the land. It’s the Next Big Thing and folks in both Silicon Valley and academia are abuzz. But is the hype deserved and sustainable, or is this just another sign of a venture capital-fueled tech bubble?

Massive Open Online Courses – MOOCs – look to be the real deal. Companies like Udacity,Coursera and edX provide a teaching, course management, and enrollment platform where professors from top-flight universities can offer their most popular courses. From Stanford to MIT to Harvard, most of the heavy-weight universities have skin in these particular games. So yes, these hot-hot-hot start-ups have taken a lot of foundation or venture capital money (or both), but they also have a whole lot of substance going on.

These companies are also attracting and enrolling a huge number of learners of all ages. It helps that at this stage most of the available courses are free, but it is also an indication of the hunger out there for high-quality online learning opportunities that are also highly accessible (no admissions review or process) and affordable.

Considering the next big debt crisis will be centered on student loans, and with the ever-escalating cost of a traditional four-year degree education, more and more students are looking for ways to learn without necessarily incurring the costs of a traditional education (or a least a full four or five years of a college education).

But beyond even all this, these platforms are a response to a much larger trend, which is the slow upending of traditional classroom-based education. With the torrid growth of Khan Academy, a non-profit provider of instructional videos for K – 12 students, and the increasing ubiquity of alternative “universities” such as TEDed and Lynda.com for lifelong learning, the availability of high-quality instruction at no or a low cost has never been higher.

“Americans are going to start thinking about higher education not as, you know, a traditional college, necessarily, or even a traditional night school, but as something that’s sort of moves beyond these traditional barriers of time and place,” said Ben Wildavsky of the Kauffman Foundation in a recent NPR story.

A secondary and more nascent trend is the concept of “credentials 2.0”, which is born of the need to document alternative learning accomplishment and mastery. While everyone recognizes the legitimacy of a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year college or university, evaluators don’t quite know what to do with claims that courses were completed via Khan Academy or edX or TEDed. While some provide certificates of completion – more commonly referred to as badges – others do not yet, and those that do may not offer versions that are downloadable or otherwise portable.

In response, Mozilla has been at work building a badge platform called Open Badgesspecifically targeted at both traditional and non-traditional learning environments so students and lifelong learners have a way of verifying a course of study has been completed to a third-party evaluator. And companies like Pathbrite (where I am CEO) are building portfolio platforms that enable the collection and presentation of “artifacts” that can include earned badges, digital versions of transcripts and traditional diplomas, and all manner of work product demonstrating competency.

Though MOOCs may sound gimmicky and faddy and even silly, they are the real deal. They’re spawning a supporting ecosystem. And they just may be the future of education.

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