From MOOCs To YouTube: Free Digital Lessons Fuel Lifetime Learning

Rob Jonkers

Some commentators feel that the acronym “MOOC”—which stands for massive open online course—is an unfortunate name for a powerful higher education tool. Give the acronym a hard “C” and repeat it in a staccato way: “MOOC-MOOC-MOOC!” Sounds like an alien chicken clucking about tasty insects.

But MOOCs and learner websites are far from chicken feed in the world of digital education. Elements of the expanding world of digital distance learning, MOOCs are part of a grand experiment about increasing access to learning through free college classes and work training.

Well-known professors at universities worldwide, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Seoul International and the Sorbonne, offer classes via MOOC. Some universities even offer college credit at minimal cost for some of their MOOCs.

Even though most of the classes are free, MOOCs have the potential to earn significant amounts of money due to their massive enrollments. The same is true for digital learning based on videos that viewers access for free or for a small price online.

MOOCs and distance learning history

Juliana Marques explained the history of MOOCs in a 2013 article in MOOC News and Reviews. Marques notes they are an updated form of distance learning, which was first known as correspondence courses. These classes became possible as postal mail service improved in the 19th century. For example, students in Australia took courses offered at the London School of Economics by mail.

Radio, television, and videos later expanded distance learning. Some colleges provided blended “telecourses,” in which students watched videos of television education shows and then met with professors for guidance.

According to Marques, the biggest problem with these distance techniques is lack of interaction with teachers and other students. She contrasts this with the way digital tools make more interaction possible.

Marques describes how MIT professor Eric Landen teaches beginning biology to students in the classroom while simultaneously instructing MOOC learners. As he teaches, Landen responds to students in the classroom, stopping every now and then to look at a camera and ask MOOC students if they have questions or comments.

MOOCs also offer students forums and online study groups to make learning more social.

Early MOOCers and shakers

Marques credits two University of Manitoba educators, Stephen Downes and George Siemons, for designing the first massively open online course in 2008. They based it on a college class they taught called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge.”

Since MOOCs or online videos are either free or inexpensive to view, many college classes and professional training courses use this approach. Here are some other early leaders in free, massive online learning:

Khan Academy and YouTube

According to The Guardian, MIT and Harvard graduate Sal Khan started a revolution in education. It began when he tutored a younger cousin struggling with math via video lessons he posted on YouTube. Soon many of Khan’s relatives started accessing his tutoring sessions. Then the world was at his digital doorstep.

 Coursera and Career Services

In 2011, two Stanford professors launched Coursera to offer free higher education classes. EdSurge reports that Coursera gained 10 million students worldwide and $85 million in venture capital by 2014. One early monetization model involved helping businesses find skilled employees. In exchange for free classes, students post learner profiles at Coursera.

edX university consortium

Harvard University and MIT opened their nonprofit edX program in 2012, connecting users to universities worldwide. College credit is finally becoming available for some undergraduate level edX classes; for example, the University of Arizona now allows students to take all their freshman classes via edX. business and web training

Although not a MOOC, the website educates many people in business and Web design skills. Subscribers access all the company’s videos for an annual fee that costs less than a community college class.

Lynda Weinman learned Hollywood special-effects animation on the job, finding few learning opportunities for digital designers. So Weinman started with her husband, Bruce Heavin, in 1995. Last April, she and Heavin sold their e-learning enterprise to LinkedIn for $1.5 billion.

Enterprise education via MOOCs

When Downes and Siemons created the first MOOC, they did not have a single digital platform on which to reach students. Marques notes that they used Facebook groups, Wiki pages, blogs, forums, and other resources.

These days single digital platforms such as SAP HANA are powerful enough to reach massive numbers of online students, and many corporations provide employee training through MOOCs. One example is our openSAP system for free training about SAP digital tools.

Providing free classes is about democratizing education. But it also prepares workers for an ever-changing workplace. Consider, for example, the anonymous father who blogs at Hacker-Dad. Having studied advanced math and science at Oxford and Stanford, Hacker-Dad does not need any more degrees. But, he writes, he does need to learn more about his profession. So he takes MOOCs from MIT and other research universities.

The digital degree

In 2014, The Economist noted that universities are now responsible for training and retraining workers throughout their careers. MOOCs and other digital distance-learning tools are flexible for this purpose. Their flexibility, however, does not mean these courses are all introductory topics, or that they are easy. Whether free or tuition-based, they require effort from students. To succeed, participants need access to the digital world.

To learn more about digital transformation for higher education, click here.


Rob Jonkers

About Rob Jonkers

Rob Jonkers is a solution director for Higher Education & Research (HER) at SAP. He is responsible for enabling and driving the HER cloud solution portfolio.