Move Over MOOCs: The Real Revolution is Personalized Learning

Given the hype about MOOCs in the past two years, it was inevitable that a reassessment would happen.  In an article entitled, “The MOOC Disruption Proves Less Than Revolutionary After All” in last month’s Chronicle, some of the hot air was let out of the MOOC balloon. Even some of the initial proponents of massive open online courses now see their role in a more limited evolutionary context, not a revolutionary one. MOOCs will be part of a spectrum of online course and program options that colleges may choose from. These options range from web-enhanced and flipped classrooms, to hybrid courses meeting partially online, to traditional courses using MOOCs or open educational resources, to fully online courses and programs — with all the combinations and permutations possible in these and other approaches to teaching.

In my blog post last spring entitled MOOCs and Magical Thinking, I cautioned against expecting too much too soon from this innovative approach to learning.  It will not transform college as we know it, and moreover, its initial impact will be limited, at best. Few students will ever be able to earn credit for such courses, and the traditional institutional structures within higher education will go largely unchanged. The real story, I blogged, is not the emerging MOOC environment, but rather the ongoing importance and acceptance of online learning  as a strategically important cornerstone to college pedagogy.  “The battle is over, and online has won,” I concluded in another post over a year ago.

MOOCs have had their day in the sun, and maybe have had too much of it. However, relatively unreported is a truly innovative, well-planned, and potentially revolutionary online implementation program, as reported in the latest Educause Review Online.  Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning Program (website link), I believe, is where you may see the future potential for online learning played out in real time.

A full discussion of the numerous innovations of this program will take a second blog post (in the near future) to fully discuss.  For now, I will list some of the revolutionary, or at least “disruptive,”  elements that Fredrick M. Hurst describes in his Educause article. These innovations include:

  1. Truly self-paced instruction for students which include students choosing their starting and ending dates
  2. Faculty role as “guides/advisers” on the side, used when students need them
  3. Free remediation and testing prior to admittance into their programs
  4. Ability to transfer formal learning credits from other institutions
  5. Just in time teaching when student is ready and is motivated to learn
  6. Pre/post testing of students for each course to better gauge learning
  7. Collaboration with a known publisher (Pearson) to expedite course and program development, roll-out and implementation, with the ability to provide needed expertise
  8. Truly inter-disciplinary programs that go beyond the discipline internecine turf battles and other limitations inherent in current academic structures
  9. Assessment based on actual student competencies, not merely writing papers or passing quizzes
  10. Automatic tracking of student progress for advisers/instructors
  11. Subscription-based, low cost (on par with CUNY tuition) model for students which provides real value
  12. Potentially shortened time to degree based only on student motivation and aptitude
  13. A competency report to employers  (that outlines skills applicable to the workplace) in addition to a traditional transcript
  14. Big data reporting capabilities which allows program managers to adjust courses based on tracking cumulative student data in real time
  15. Program specifically designed within its own independent unit inside the university–allowing for change and innovation without threatening the existing institutional processes and policies.

In summary, I will discuss these points in greater depth in my next post.  For now, I can say with some confidence, that new models like NUA’s Personalized Learning represents a much greater challenge to the rigid structures and practices of academia than MOOCs ever will. An institution like CUNY would do well to send a project team to this and other such programs and see what lessons can be learned for this university.


Hurst, Fredrick, (2013), “Northern Arizona University’s Personalized Learning,” Educause Review Online, Sept. 4, 2013, Retrieved at:

Kolowich, Steve, (2013) “The MOOC Disruption Proves Less Than Revolutionary After All,”  The Chronicle of Higher Education, Aug. 16, 2013, pp. A6. Retrieved from:

Northern Arizona University, Personalized Learning website:

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