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MOOCs Won’t Replace Traditional Education. But They Don’t Have To



One of the bigger technology stories of the past year has been the emergence of MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and Udemy offer courses on a wide range of topics and can be accessed from anywhere on the planet with a decent internet connection. They are the logical evolution of the correspondence course realized thanks to the internet.

I won’t be so dramatic as Clay Shirky to say that MOOCs are going to turn institutional education on its head. I think he’s creating a false dichotomy by discussing them in this way. The truth is that many educational institutions are playing a big part in the growth of MOOCs. If I draw on my own recent experience with MOOCs, I’ve been in a Python course with Rice University professors on Coursera, and I did another on data visualization from the Knight Center for Journalism through UofT. Many of these courses bring much of the same information, and indeed the same instructors that you’ll find in universities.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that MOOCs are no replacement for in-class instruction. Posting a cry for help in a forum is hardly the same as raising your hand to ask a question. But MOOCs really don’t have to replace conventional education. They can be a supplement. Or, if you’re like me, a way for old (long-since graduated) dogs to learn new tricks. Or — and perhaps this is where the real impact lies — for a kid growing up in rural India or China, it can be a door to new worlds that’s suddenly as close as the nearest internet cafe.

For our readers who live in the world of startups, MOOCs have a lot to offer as well. The rich offerings of technical courses mean that suddenly your non-technical people can get become familiar with programming — not because you need those people to program themselves, but because it will help them see new possibilities, and thus work better with coders.

I’m curious to know how many of our readers have been taking advantage of MOOCs this year. If you have, do let us know what your experience has been like in the comments.

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