If MOOC doesn’t roll off your tongue as easily as SEO or LOL, start practicing. The acronym (attributed to a Canadian, by the way) stands for Massive Open Online Courses and, even though it’s a mouthful, you’ll hear it more and more as this intensely social education movement becomes increasingly mainstream.
MOOCs are massive, free and taking off like mad. Class sizes of 100,000 plus are common. The largest MOOC platform, Coursera, has had more than a million students take classes at top universities since it opened earlier this year. Another start-up, Udacity, and not-for-profit edX (a partnership between MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley) have taught hundreds of thousands more. Anyone with Internet access anywhere in the world can now “attend” courses at some of the world’s most prestigious universities.
Simple, Social and an Emerging Marketing Opportunity
Not surprisingly, a lot of the MOOCs being offered in these early days have to do with the internet, with courses on programing, gamification and human-computer interaction to name just a few. This is perfect for anyone in the digital space, where life-long learning is not a goal – it’s a requirement.
How do MOOCs work? As Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said in her TED Talk, the online format of the courses eliminates the need for “the monolithic one-hour lecture.” Courses are offered in short video segments (usually 5-15 minutes) adding up to a couple hours per week, allowing busy people to jump in and out as their schedule allows. Courses have a beginning and an ending with weekly assignments because research shows that students are motivated by deadlines. Typical courses are six to nine weeks long.
MOOCs are highly social, from the forums students use to compare notes to the Facebook pages and twitter hashtags they use to share additional resources. Assignments are marked by peers, which turns out to be quite effective (with classes of thousands, there’s no other way to do it). It’s not a stretch to say collaboration and community are as strong or even stronger in MOOCs as they are in traditional classrooms.
And, wherever there are online communities of thousands of people with shared goals and interests, marketers are bound to follow – sponsoring the actual courses or, engaging with students in the social space.
There’s always a downside. Here are a few negatives to consider and, some mitigating factors:
- MOOCs aren’t credit courses. Students who successfully complete assignments and the final exam will get a certificate of completion but no credit at the school delivering the course. This may change as MOOCs evolve (see next point).
- MOOCs are free. And free means no revenue, right? The answer is, not necessarily. Currently universities don’t get much more from MOOCs than some free marketing and the right to say they’re on the ground floor of something new and compelling. Already though, some institutions are exploring “upgrades” that could lead to degrees. For a fee, students could get tested in a supervised testing facility to reduce the risk of cheating and have the results would be counted towards university credit.
- MOOCs are disruptive. Giving away content can hurt, just look at the newspaper industry. Critics fear MOOCs could seriously undermine the traditional university. But, for educational institutions, the disruption isn’t complete – it’s what Christoph Meinel of Germany’s Hasso Plattner Institute has termed a “disruptive extension” of the university. Think of it this way: a newspaper typically tries to reach everyone in its community. When everyone gets content for free, the paper loses. A university course reaches dozens or maybe hundreds of students at most. When that number suddenly scales to tens of thousands, it’s an opportunity, not a threat. Just imagine what 100,000 $10 “upgrade” fees would do for a typical school.
Now, if someone could just come up with a better acronym.