When campus president Wallace Loh walked into Juan Uriagereka's office last August, he got right to the point. “We need courses for this thing — yesterday!”
Uriagereka, associate provost for faculty affairs at the University of Maryland in College Park, knew exactly what his boss meant. Campus administrators around the world had been buzzing for months about massive open online courses, or MOOCs: Internet-based teaching programs designed to handle thousands of students simultaneously, in part using the tactics of social-networking websites. To supplement video lectures, much of the learning comes from online comments, questions and discussions. Participants even mark one another's tests.
MOOCs had exploded into the academic consciousness in summer 2011, when a free artificial-intelligence course offered by Stanford University in California attracted 160,000 students from around the world — 23,000 of whom finished it. Now, Coursera in Mountain View, California — one of the three researcher-led start-up companies actively developing MOOCs — was inviting the University of Maryland to submit up to five courses for broadcast on its software platform. Loh wanted in. “He was very clear,” says Uriagereka. “We needed to be a part of this.”
Similar conversations have been taking place at major universities around the world, as dozens — 74, at the last count — rush to sign up. Science, engineering and technology courses have been in the vanguard of the movement, but offerings in management, humanities and the arts are growing in popularity (see 'MOOCs rising'). “In 25 years of observing higher education, I've never seen anything move this fast,” says Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist at Stanford and one of the leaders of an ongoing, campus-wide discussion series known as Education's Digital Future.
The ferment is attributable in part to MOOCs hitting at exactly the right time. Bricks-and-mortar campuses are unlikely to keep up with the demand for advanced education: according to one widely quoted calculation, the world would have to construct more than four new 30,000-student universities per week to accommodate the children who will reach enrolment age by 2025 (see go.nature.com/mjuzhu), let alone the millions of adults looking for further education or career training. Colleges and universities are also under tremendous financial pressure, especially in the United States, where rocketing tuition fees and ever-expanding student debt have resulted in a backlash from politicians, parents and students demanding to know what their money is going towards.
When MOOCs came along, says Chris Dede, who studies educational technologies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, they promised to solve these problems by radically expanding the reach of existing campuses while streamlining the workload for educators — and universities seized on them as the next big thing.
There is reason to hope that this is a positive development, says Roy Pea, who heads a Stanford center that studies how people use technology. MOOCs, which have incorporated decades of research on how students learn best, could free faculty members from the drudgery of repetitive introductory lectures. What's more, they can record online students' every mouse click, an ability that promises to transform education research by generating data that could improve teaching in the future. “We can have microanalytics on every paper, every test, right down to what media each student prefers,” says Pea.