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MOOCs: The Adult Learning Renaissance

More and more it is becoming evident that the impact MOOCs will have is on adult (lifelong) learners and not on your typical undergraduate. I am currently participating in Kathy Davidson’s wonderful MOOC entitled, “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” with thousands of others. The landscape is a rich learning environment with excellent videos, online textbook and links to articles, community site, peer-assessed assignments, quizzes and other useful innovations. Your average online professor would be hard-pressed to produce anything near the quality of this team-produced course hosted by Coursera.

This is not a site for undergraduate learners—although they would be welcome to participate. I imagine that well over 90% of the students are adults, many in academia, that wish to advance their knowledge in this area and see what a MOOC has to offer. Adult learners, as we know, are self-motivated, not needing a campus experience, capable of higher order thinking and writing (we hope), and bring a wealth of personal experience to the table.  For the most part, they are not seeking credit for this course, or even need to have this as a component of a degree. We are taking this MOOC due to our inherent interest in the topic, our love of learning, and the need to be part of a greater community of learners. We are, I believe, the real “early adopters” of MOOCs, and part of a parallel revolution in online learning—that of non-degree seeking adult learners.

In a previous post, I reflected that the real impact of MOOCs was overstated in the undergraduate arena. I feel that the real story was the acceptance of online learning within the conservative bastions of higher education. In essence, online learning has won the decade-plus battle for acceptance in academia. In that context, MOOCs are more a flashy online hybrid that may have a great future, but have little immediate impact for the vast majority of college students today.  There are many issues to iron out including students getting credit for these MOOCs, ownership of the content, academic rigor and assessment, etc. These will take time to resolve and, in time, there certainly will be a place for MOOCs in college teaching.

However, most of these challenges do not really apply for adult learners. MOOCs can, and are, having an immediate impact for those of us interested in learning a range of topics we never had the time or opportunity to explore.  Thus, MOOCs can be part, I believe, of a renaissance in adult learning. Often adult learners regret not fully taking advantage of opportunities during their college career, or the over-specialization inherent in their graduate studies.  With MOOCs, many of us see the possibility for learning on our own terms—taking what topics interest us in the convenience of our homes and doing so when our schedules permit — and while paying little or no fees (at this point in MOOC development). As baby-boomers retire and have more free time, I predict many of us will continue to pursue lifelong learning opportunities. MOOCs are real, and will start to usher in a revolution in adult learning.

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6 Responses to MOOCs: The Adult Learning Renaissance

  1. Kiley–Yes that is true. However the purpose for many taking a MOOC is not to receive course credit, but learning about a topic. The dropout rate seems artificially high only if you consider that everyone intends on taking the tests and completing the course for credit. For the most part, 90% of people are casual learners that might not have the time or inclination to pursue the course for credits.

  2. Linda–Excellent point. Generally this comes under the area of a “repository of digital learning objects.” Every institution can encourage their faculty to produce videos, simulations etc. and store it in a digital format accessible by the campus community. In this manner, many valuable tools for learning will be shared outside a specific classroom.

  3. Maria–Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Some day, as you imply, MOOcs will be more accepted in academia in terms of receiving credit. For now, most chief academic officers think MOOCs will have limited or no impact on their current offerings–as indicated in the latest Sloan-C study. My point was simply that we should not overlook the immediate impact MOOCs can have for adult learners not looking to obtain credit for their participation, only learning. Indeed, this is the potential renaissance in adult learning I was referring to. Traditional college students have different needs and objectives.

  4. maria says:

    Overall a very insightful analysis here. The one issue is conflating MOOCs with online learning that is credit-bearing. While MOOCs may yet provide a threat to higher education, at present they still seem more like Open Educational Resources that don’t yet compete in the credentialing arena. Again, that may change, but we are not there yet. You ask, “Will a student at the University of Maryland want to take a freshman economics course from a Maryland faculty member, or will the student prefer to take a proctored MOOC from a Noble Prize–winning economist at another university?” The answer is, “it depends on the goal of the student – can she get credits toward a degree from her current institution by taking the MOOC exam from the second?” If the answer is yes, then the first institution had better arrange to benefit from the cooperative agreement they signed to provide credit for MOOC course experiences. Or the college should check their transfer of credit policies…but either way the college that awards the credential may still hold the cards on the student’s degree. Again, all this may change, but the issues seem even more complex than laid out here…the Georgia Tech experiment may tell us a lot.

  5. linda says:

    I spoke with our MOOC Coordinator and he pointed out that one of the additional benefits to any University when a course is MOOCified, is that the University now has assets that can be used as resources in campus classes. Many MOOCs, once they are created, are used by the faculty who made them, the same way they could use a text book. If they feel that a sequence of the MOOC would be helpful to students, they can use it in their course however they choose. They could use components of the course as replacement materials, as additional resources, or use the lectures to flip the classroom, etc. There are many ways that the materials could be used to enrich the experience of on campus students. If any University has the goal to create a library of assets that can be used for the purpose of enriching the experience of brick and mortar students, then MOOCs are one of the many ways to reach this goal.

  6. Kiley Bohman says:

    many experts believe that the biggest problem with MOOC’s is that dropout rates are extremely high. Many MOOCs have dropout rates greater than 90 percent. A good example is a MOOC that Duke University recently offered in bioelectricity. Of 12,700 individuals who registered for the course, only 350 took the final exam. This equates to a 97 percent dropout rate. Nearly 5,000 individuals who registered for the course never even watched the first lecture.

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