Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, attracted millions of students, millions of investors, and media attention in 2012, which the New York Times dubbed “The Year of the MOOC.” These factors led to the designation of 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC” in higher education. Critics emphasized the high dropout rate of MOOCs, the slim probability of recovering early investments, and the potential for any paradigm-shifting reform to worsen rather than improve things during the inevitable reaction that followed. Jonathan Haber provides a description of MOOCs in this installment of the Essential Knowledge series without resorting to hype or prophecy. Instead, he offers a compelling, uncomplicated explanation of a peculiar occurrence: an educational innovation that piques the public’s interest while developing at the rate of an Internet start-up.
In this article, Haber discusses the history of MOOCs, what they are, the issues that surround them, and their potential future impact on education. He provides a student perspective, which is lacking in most MOOC discussions and offers a new definition of MOOCs that is based on the culture of experimentation from which they were born. The topic is informed by Haber’s original Degree of Freedom experiment, in which he tried to complete a four-year liberal arts degree in one year utilizing only MOOCs and other free educational resources.
In addition to urging us to avoid the misconception that MOOCs are not worthwhile because they cannot address all educational issues, Haber also explains what benefits MOOCs still have to offer, despite their drawbacks. Anyone attempting to sort through the conflicting assertions, goals, and reproaches that color the MOOC debate must read his work.