By now, most Americans who don’t live in a cave have heard something - however vague – about MOOCs.

MOOC is short for “massive open online course”.  Several consortia offer these courses – Coursera being perhaps the best known.

Coursera offers college-level content to anyone with access to the internet, at no cost.  Outstanding professors from major research universities – Stanford, Princeton, Duke, etc. – deliver the lectures, but this isn’t just a new way to watch lectures online.

There are readings, quizzes, short papers to write, even discussion groups.  

All online.  All free.  

There is, to be sure, a paid option.  For a small fee, you can sign up to get a certificate at the end of  the course.  For now, these certificates are worth the paper they’re printed on, but that’s changing.  Recently, the American Council on Education approved five courses from Coursera – three math, two science – for college credit.

We’re entering a new era here.

In practical terms, a person who simply wants to learn – without worrying about getting a piece of paper – can now design a 40-course program from top universities and acquire that education for the cost of a broadband connection – or a lot of coffee at her neighborhood wi-fi locale.

Or, for absolutely nothing, at the public library.  

I’ve written about MOOCs before, but that was before I had actually looked into them.  Last week, I enrolled in a ten-week Coursera offering called “Climate Literacy:  Navigating Climate Change Conversations”, taught by two professors from the University of British Columbia, Dr. Sara Harris and Dr. Sarah Burch.

I’ve gotten through Module One, which was pretty basic.  Module Two is a good deal denser – mostly science, with a reasonable amount of basic technical stuff.  The first half of the course is about science – then the focus switches to public policy.

My point is:  This is not fluff.  This is a college-level course.  You have to work at it.  

I’ve yet to decide whether to do all the assignments and earn a certificate.  If I opt in, it will cost $39.

Think about that.  A college course, from a very good university in Vancouver, for 39 bucks.

I’m trying to imagine how this doesn’t change everything.

To be sure, MOOCs are new, so there are bugs to work out.  And most of the offerings are STEM stuff – science, technology, engineering and math.  It will be a few years before you can do the equivalent of an English major this way.

But consider what this could mean, if we do it right.

For the public schools, especially those which can’t afford to offer higher-level STEM courses, MOOCs could represent a legitimate way for promising students to take those courses.  To be sure, accommodations would have to be made – such as hiring a teacher, perhaps from a nearby college, to meet with the students weekly and make sure they’re on-task and not falling behind.  

For the home-schooling community, MOOCs could offer the answer to the difficult challenge of preparing older students who are ready for subjects their parents simply can’t teach.

And for every high school student, MOOCs will soon offer a way of dealing with the frustration of an important course taught by a teacher who – whatever his intellectual attainments – just isn’t a good classroom teacher.  Enduring the bad lectures might be unavoidable, but in her spare time, a serious student can get what she’s missing from a top-flight, university-level instructor.

MOOCs will also offer wonderful possibilities for adult Americans, and even seniors.  For some years now, I’ve been involved with Adventures in Learning at the Shepherd’s Center of Chesterfield – an educational program for active seniors.  I’m sure most of the Shepherd’s Center’s small, hands-on programs will continue just as they always have – but I can already envision what might be done for scholarly types by combining a MOOC with a weekly discussion group.

The biggest changes will probably come on our college campuses, and this is a topic worthy of exploration in-depth.

For now, I’d like to close with my appreciation of the course I’m presently taking.  

My regular readers will know that I have long been persuaded that the scientific community knows what it is talking about – and thus, that global climate change is real, largely human-caused, and deadly serious.

I’ve read a couple of books on the subject, and I really enjoyed Al Gore’s documentary.  But I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t understand the science all that well.

I’ve just trusted the scientists.

Now, thanks to Drs. Harris and Burch, I’m starting to understand what scientists have known for a while now, and why they are both worried and hopeful that it’s not yet too late.

This is a great MOOC.  

That’s a phrase we’re going to be hearing a lot more in the next few years.


Thanks for the pointer. Some

Thanks for the pointer. Some of the available topics are things I've been wishing I had a professor around to ask about.

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