One of the surprising things about these courses is how many non-journalists are taking them, Alves said. There is a hunger for learning the journalistic skills of gathering, verifying and presenting information, he said.
(Many of my 2,000 fellow students were non-journalists when I took the center's course on data visualization offered by Alberto Cairo.)
Another surprise, Alves said, was that 75 percent of people in the data visualization MOOC said the experience was better than face-to-face instruction. He attributes this to the fact that so many students formed communities in social media and helped educate each other.
The Knight Center is now offering its eighth MOOC, this one on "Social Media for Journalists" with 6,300 people enrolled from 149 countries. In all, 28,000 people have enrolled in the free MOOCs in the first year.
No threat to universities
Alves doesn't see these MOOCs as a threat to university courses since they are workshops on very specific topics such as data journalism and entrepreneurial journalism. He is not bothered by the fact that not everyone who signs up for the courses does not finish them.
"Our MOOCs are a human experience. This is not a book. It's not a self-directed course. It has a beginning, middle and an end, and it is led by an instructor. These aren't college classes. It's a workshop and a community. We don't expect that everyone who comes will do it. We don't mind if you come, watch a video and go." -- Rosental Alves
To their surprise, half of the enrollees were physics teachers. So in later versions of the course, developers shaped the course material with that audience in mind.
Seaton said the variety of approaches in MOOCs, from for-credit courses with exams to informal online communities, makes it difficult to make generalizations. However, he added that about two-thirds of those taking the courses do not have a degree, which suggests that MOOCs are a force for the democratization of information.
The teachers who prepare MOOCs are often shocked by how much work is required to prepare them, Seaton said. All of the technology and course material have to be developed from zero.
Insane college costs
Reuters columnist Felix Salmon hopes that MOOCs might help bring down the "insane" cost of a university education in the U.S. by allowing students to take courses outside of the campus setting. He suggested that some second- and third-tier universities might be able to offer courses by professors of elite universities via MOOCs and thus improve quality at lower cost.
As for whether MOOCs threaten the business model of universities, he said, "I'm worried more about students than about schools. You can't afford to go to college, and you can't afford to NOT go to college." The two trends, he suggested, will lead to a greater income gap and socioeconomic divide as fewer students from families of modest or low income will be able to benefit from higher education.
"The real value of MOOCs is making education more available and more affordable," Salmon said.
For universities, MOOCs could be valuable through the data that they bring about the people enrolled in courses. For-profit education organizations should also be able to find a business model in MOOCs and help bring down the cost of the traditional university education, he believes.
Technology in its infancy
Andrew Lih of American University said that the technology and teaching methods of MOOCs are relatively unsophisticated now, which makes the experience less than ideal.
Instead, he found himself overwhelmed by the "firehose of commentary" from the course participants. "Even just the introduction section was too much to consume. It was tough to make sense of the stream of stuff coming in. It was hard for me to sift through it." He abandoned the course.
Course designers should think more like architects or urban planners, he said, because they design spaces to maximize positive interactions among people.
One of the advantages of living on a university campus, Lih said, is the opportunity for students and professors of different departments to rub shoulders and interact. This serendipity should be part of MOOC design, he suggested.
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