George Ritzer, Introduction to Sociology. Sage, 2013.
Chapter 1, Pages 16-17
MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses
Many believe that the future of college (and even high school) education in the United States lies in the expansion of online education, especially of a new system known as “Massive Open Online Education”, or MOOCs. The definition of a MOOC is to be found in its four elements:
- It is designed to enrol a massive number of students (early courses course have had 100,000-lus students)
- Even though MOOCs are, at least so far, offered by traditional universities (e.g. Stanford), they are open to anyone
- MOOCs are exist only online and accessible to anyone with a computer and able to access the Internet
- And, of course, their main function is to educate
While some the ideas behind MOOCs are traceable to the early 1960s. The first true MOOC began in 2008, but the big breakthrough came in 2011 with three Stanford University MOOCs each enrolling more than 100,000 students and in nearly every country in the world. A corporation, Coursea, where enrollment passed two million students, late 2012) emerged out of this at Stanford and today other companies (Udacity, edX) and many other universities are eager to offer MOOCs. There is a widespread feeling that MOOCs are going to spread rapidly and in many ways dramatically alter higher education. A major driving force is the increasing costs of traditional higher education and the fact that MOOCs are able to reach a far greater number of students at much lower cost (one instructor can teach those 100,000 plus students). MOOCs also utilizes advanced modern technologies rather than traditional, and rather primitive, face-to-face interaction in small classes, or the far less personal large lectures, characteristic of traditional college education.
One MOOC begun in 2012 is an introduction to sociology taught by Professor Mitch Duneier at Princeton University and offered to about 40,000 students worldwide on Coursea (Lewin, 2012a) , along with about 200 other courses. Like all others involved in these early courses, Prof. Duneier is feeling his way through the various aspects of the course. As in most of the early MOOCs, less than 5% of the students who began the course completed it and took the final exam. However, there was lots of student involvement and Duneier found: “Within three weeks, I had more feedback on my sociological ideas than I’d had in my whole teaching career” (Lewin, 2012a). Feedback came through global exchanges on an online discussion, a video chat room, as well as study groups that formed throughout the world (e.g. Katmandu, Nepal). Duneier was also delighted to find that he could discusss highly sensitive sociological topics such as the lack of public restrooms for those who sold things on the street (a topic that Duneier  wrote about in a famous sociological monograph, Sidewalk).
However, there are a variety of problems associated with MOOCs beyond the fact that such a small percentage of students complete courses. One is the difficulties involved in creating a web-based course that has the production values that students are accustomed to in movies, videos and online content (although one instructor has figured out ”how to make PowerPoint dance” [Lewin, 2013: A10]). Another, is that the requirements of being a good teacher mediated by the computer and the Internet are different from those required in the classroom (and few are trained, or have any experience, in teaching in this way) and for many it will be a difficult if not impossible transition. Then there is the issue of evaluating the work of thousands, potentially many thousands of students, and the fact that this will overwhelm the instructor, even with many assistants. One of the ways this is being dealt with, and it creates many other problems, is to have the students evaluate themselves. Yet to be determined is how students can earn degrees through MOOCs, as well as how colleges will be able to collect fees and tuition and earn profits from what will ultimately be an expensive undertaking (Lewin, 2013). In terms of the latter, venture capitalists seem to think that the money will be there since they are already investing millions in MOOCs. Finally, there is the worry that this will lead to an even more stratified educational system. On the one hand, students in less developed countries, and in community colleges and lower-tier colleges and universities in the United States, will be exposed to elite educators and courses thereby democratizing education and reducing inequality in education. On the other hand, those in less developed countries and lower-tier educational institutions will be increasingly, if not totally, reliant on MOOCs and similar modes of delivering mass education (e.g., Udemy which allows professors to put their own courses online). In contrast, students in developed countries, especially in their elite universities, will continue to get highly expensive and more effective face-to-face education.
Lewin, Tamar. “College of Future Could be Come One, Come All.” New York Times November 19, 2012:
Lewin, Tamar. “Students Rush to Web Classes, But Profits May be Much Later.” New York Times January 7, 2013: A1, A10.