What Are MOOCs and Are They Education’s Future?

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This week on New Tech City we’re talking MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses that major universities and newly formed education companies are offering for FREE (and that’s no acronym).  Hundreds of thousands of people around the globe are taking these classes.

Could this be the future of higher-level degrees?

And most importantly, can I stop contributing to my kids’ 529 College Savings Plan?

That’s what I asked Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. He explained how this new form of online learning builds on older methods thanks to better broadband, multimedia, and connectivity. He also told me, quite sheepishly, why he and the majority of MOOC participants end up becoming dropouts. Listen to the full interview on WNYC and read his very thorough article on MOOCs in MIT Technology Review.

Carr doesn’t think the atmosphere of a classroom can be replicated online. Neither does Carmen Scheidel*, Mediabistro’s former head of online education:

“One of the things that is been yet to be determined with MOOCs is how to create intimacy. So if you have tens of thousands of people learning a subject together, that’s exciting and perhaps a social movement, but how do you create one-on-one feedback? How do you create intimacy?”

She said online classes at Mediabistro don’t strive to replicate classroom coziness but to create another kind of online intimacy. Sheidel was motivated to create online courses several years ago because she was tired of going to conferences where, other than a stack of business cards and some big ideas, she took home no concrete ways to apply what she learned.

Mediabistro holds courses for hundreds of people (not thousands) on the Adobe platform that features speakers and teachers in-vision. Students can interact via chat during presentations. But participants also meet in smaller groups online to work on real projects and get coaching from mentors. They are held accountable AND get to share, help, and flirt with their classmates.

Scheidel said she realized, “We could create some educational content that was actually fun to participate in. That’s one of the things that can get easily overlooked: People want to have a good time when they are learning.”

A good time when we are learning?! Radical concept.

The next step, said Scheidel, is students going on-camera too. 

I think the future is sort of here with Google Hangouts and Spreecast, the platform I use every week for my discussion series. In fact, this week, I’m chatting tech and journalism with PC Magazine editor-in-chief Dan Costa.


*Scheidel has a new job but is vowed to secrecy until she starts working later this month.