What’s a MOOC Good For, Anyway?

This week, I’ve spent several hours with a friend whose intellect is recognized by a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university. We’re both deeply engaged at the intersection of media and learning, most often for some form of public good. Yesterday, we talked about why people go to school.  To be more specific, why people go to school beyond the point where law requires them (us) to do so.

Harvard-MOOCWhen I read this readwrite article, an interview with Harvard’s new vice provost of advances in learning (excellent job title!), I started thinking about why anybody bothers with, say, TED Talks, or for that matter, why we read non-fiction books.

Just as we’ve managed to bottle up massive quantities of spirituality into the structures we call religions, we’ve managed to do the same with massive quantities of learning into the notion of school and organized education. MOOCs shake up that formula. A MOOC–a massively open online course–carries no price tag, and, although it may be offered by the likes of Harvard or Stanford or UPenn, it carries no credit, either. You take the course because, well, because you want to learn.

The distinction is a simple one, or so one might argue. There is learning, and there is education, and if they sometimes overlap (as they are intended to do), they might serve different purposes. Learning is all about personal development, and refinement of understanding. Education’s purpose is a degree, a formal recognition, typically for a price, that serves as an admission ticket into parts of the job marketplace that are otherwise inaccessible.

So what’s a MOOC good for? Same thing as a book, I think. It’s for learning. Turns out, millions of people simply want to learn, on line, for their own development and understanding.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. Do read the readwrite article (interesting phrase, that), and you’ll find that a bit more of the picture comes into focus.

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