Anant Agarwal of MOOC edX.org at TEDGlobal 2013.

Anant Agarwal of MOOC edX.org at TEDGlobal 2013.

Following the arrival of the World Wide Web, the dissemination of information has accelerated beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations: At the touch of a key, we can almost immediately access information on any topic we please. And it’s thanks to the Internet that open-source education, like Massive Open Online Courses, is gaining steam in today’s highly connected society.

First, a little bit of history

Although MOOCs are growing in popularity, the principal of open-source classrooms is actually not all that new. Before the internet came into being, there were correspondence courses, radio-broadcast courses and televised classes. Now, armed with modern-day web conference capabilities, academic institutions, including prominent Ivy League colleges like Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, are joining the MOOC bandwagon en masse in an effort to keep up with technological advances and virtual demands.

Why this is awesome

MOOCs' explosive popularity has led the New York Times to dub 2012 "the year of the MOOC" and for good reason. Researchers from Lindenwood University cite several benefits of MOOCs:

1.      MOOCs capitalize on global technology to boost access to high-quality education. With a simple internet connection, MOOCs remove barriers of time, space and language.

2.      These online classrooms are only limited by the size of the provider's bandwidth. Read: MOOCs can reach very large groups of learners.

3.      MOOCs are conducive to more engaged and life-long learning, "allowing participants to pursue a particular interest or to continue their professional development."

A dose of cautionary optimism

Increased and affordable access to high-quality education and prominent professors? What’s not to love? Although proponents praise MOOCs for their potential to cultivate learning among the masses, there is an equally loud chorus of critics quick to list MOOCs' limitations. Among the chief criticisms:

1.      First and foremost, questions around MOOCs’ efficacy are largely unknown. Some studies have shown students very rarely complete an entire course. What’s more, study results also suggest MOOCs may not be reaching students in poor countries as they have long touted.
2.      We don’t really understand how cultural and social factors may impact participants’ success, one critic says. In that same vein, “digital literacy” is required to thrive as a MOOC participant.

3.      Another opponent goes as far as to say, MOOCs may endanger job security for those seeking PhDs.

Despite the skepticism, MOOCs are showing no sign of abating. Only time will tell whether the supporters or detractors will prevail in this controversial and divisive debate.

Have you participated in a MOOC before? What was your experience like, and have you chosen a side in this argument? Share your comments below!

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