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Geoff Johnson: Massive online courses are a new frontier

Mooks and MOOCs are not to be confused. A “mook” is a disagreeable or incompetent person (and that’s a kinder definition than some) while a MOOC is anything but disagreeable.

Mooks and MOOCs are not to be confused. A “mook” is a disagreeable or incompetent person (and that’s a kinder definition than some) while a MOOC is anything but disagreeable. A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course of study — post-secondary school with a difference.

Most MOOCs are free (for now) and they’re everywhere.

MOOCs in their many forms represent the most significant change in the delivery of higher education and are intended for large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web.

“Interactive” and “open” are the key words here.

The difference to normal online courses is that in addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community of learning for the students, teaching assistants and professors.

It’s all about sharing knowledge.

Along with Yale, University of California Berkeley, Harvard and Stanford, the University of Toronto will be offering three free courses online via the education technology company Coursera. Coursera is an online platform for offering MOOCs and was started only recently.

In its first six months, Coursera enabled 650,000 students from 190 countries to gain access to 43 different university courses.

Filling a need? I guess so.

The University of Toronto and the University of Alberta both claim to be the first Canadian university to join this international initiative. The U of T computer science department (which, of course, has its own Facebook page) will offer three courses, while U of T’s faculty of social work and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education will offer a course each.

The U of A is offering a for-credit MOOC paleontology course (dubbed Dino 101) that is now open for registration to students anywhere in the world on the Coursera platform. The fee is half the price of a regular U of A course.

“The landscape of online education is an exciting new frontier, and we’re thrilled to be taking a leadership role in exploring it,” said Sven Dickinson, chair of the U of T department of computer science.

A news release from U of T faculty explains that members will use the materials developed for Coursera to teach via the “inverted classroom model” in which students can engage with recorded materials on the Internet at their own pace.

Classroom time can then be used for more active engagement between U of T instructors and students.

For those of us who spent our formative years trudging from dingy lecture halls to stifling seminar meetings, this is all mind-boggling.

Canadian universities are starting to see MOOCs as a way to dramatically increase the visibility of their brands and may soon begin to spy pots of gold in the hundreds of thousands of students from whom they could charge small fees for certificates.

There is a potential downside for some professors that, according to MOOC critic Jonathan Rees, a University of Colorado history professor, could see a small number of star professors earning hefty MOOC royalties and an army of lower-paid teaching assistants without job security who will do the lesson prep and delivery.

While local secondary schools are not yet using MOOCs, a scaled-down version of locally created collaborative online courses are run in all Victoria secondary schools. A program called Moodle allows teachers to develop courses and make them accessible.

Saanich and Cowichan teachers also use Moodle to good effect.

In the meantime, post-secondary MOOCs are expanding the audience for higher education to people ill-served or shut out from the current system of limited access to universities and colleges.

Instead of offering post-secondary education to a selected few, higher education is being made available to a broader knowledge-hungry audience.

With “open” online courses being offered by professors from around the world, anybody can experience learning from and with the “elite.”

For public education, “the times they are a-changin’.”


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.