By Anna Meixler
Access to classroom learning is far from universal, and even those enrolled in formal educational institutions may be hungering for greater, more convenient learning opportunities. In fact, the most heavily cited reason that students take MOOCs, according to a February 2013 Coursera report on their Bioelectricity MOOC from Duke University, is to satisfy intellectual hunger. The desire to extend existing knowledge on certain topics is cited as the second most likely cause for engagement, and professional development as the third.
This academic curiosity is universal. According to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas at Austin, its MOOC with only 2,000 students encompassed 109 different countries. Students represent countries with vastly different political and socioeconomic conditions, interacting with individuals internationally through MOOC discussion forums as previous generations had not. The 687 participants from the United States had the opportunity to correspond with students from Egypt, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Educational discourse may eventually bridge conflict and unite citizens between states with historically tense relationships.
These are not only university students, but also adults and working professionals representing a variety of fields, contributing unique perspectives. Many courses consist of students who hold less than a four-year degree along with students who have Bachelors degrees, and students with even more advanced degrees.
MOOCs uniquely offer students a way to explore their interests and expand their knowledge at a university level, without having to apply to or meet the requirements for attending a standard university. In this way, MOOCs provide high-quality educational experiences, without hefty price tags, rigid time commitments, or exclusive acceptance rates. They also allow students to select the learning experience most productive and best suited to their abilities and preferences, which may surprise those who think MOOCs are impersonal. Students choose MOOCs based on their levels of difficulty, and can study class material at their own paces, based on their schedules and learning needs.
This new educational frontier requires flexibility in leadership and participation. Many MOOCs are still in trial-and-error stages, necessary for their eventual success. Like in any higher-learning construct, teachers, and students must interact dynamically to fully reap the unique benefits that MOOCs offer. Professors and students are testing the waters with MOOCs, partaking in the educational experiment of the twenty-first century. In so doing, participants promote innovation in teaching and learning, enhancing global knowledge and satisfying scholarly interests.