July 09, 2013, 9:36 AM — In some circles, MOOCs are seen as highly disruptive for higher education. While the battle over massive open online courses may rage in some disciplines for years to come, there's one area where the transition will be tranquil: information technology education. MOOCs, of course, are usually college-level courses that are offered by an established university. They are free and available online, and their shared goal is to open up learning to as many people as possible.
Information services and technology rest at the heart of the MOOC experience. And not only are MOOCs the result of advances in information-sharing technology, they are also ideally suited to the teaching of IT skills -- and to the acumen and temperament of most IT students. As a result, computer and information science courses and their students are leading the charge in this transformation of higher education. With computer and science professors among the most interested in moving their courses to a new platform, and with students who are already tech-savvy, the IT-MOOC connection makes perfect sense.
In fact, IT courses were destined to lead online higher education. Just think of all the ads you've ever seen for positions in IT fields. They often include a laundry list of very specific, defined skills and credentials that serve as baseline requirements. Faced with such demands, building expertise becomes an ongoing process for most IT professionals, one that requires not only time and resources, but adaptability and an overall commitment to lifelong learning as well. MOOCs are ideally fitted to the ever-expanding IT learning path -- free, available at any time, and specific to new technologies as they are born and evolve.
MOOCs can help IT professionals become better at the jobs they do, or prepare them for new positions down the road. They offer a way of obtaining key credentials without having to attend a traditional college or university.
In 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University opened access to their course on artificial intelligence, gaining 160,000 enrolled learners in almost 200 countries. Eventually achieving double the completion rate of an average MOOC, the AI course demonstrated that when it comes to information science, the online platform achieves results. A colleague of mine took the course and recently told me that it changed his life -- and it has certainly changed the overall perception of the value of online learning.
Coursera, a leading publisher of MOOCs, lists 92 different computer and information science courses, all offered through reputable universities. Twelve of edX's 59 course offerings and 16 of Udacity's all-science curricula are dedicated to computer science. Twenty-seven percent of MOOCs focus on computer and information science.
I recently had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Charles Severance, or "Dr. Chuck," as his students call him, a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information. Severance taught one of the first MOOCs for Coursera, titled "Internet History and Security," and he has an intimate understanding of the practical nature of online courses and how they may appeal more broadly than a traditional education.
According to Severance, one of the critical benefits of MOOCs is that students can continue with their careers while they learn, and they can take as many or as few classes as they want or need. In the end, career development and intellectual growth become faster and more efficient.
Massive online learning is on a crucial upward trajectory that is leading the way to a much wider transformation in education. In the coming months and years, it will be interesting to gauge just how quickly and completely MOOCs disrupt the educational landscape and are embraced by a wider audience.
One thing is certain, though. For those interested in the convergence of higher education and technology, understanding MOOCs is key.
Dean Tsouvalas is editor in chief at MOOCAdvisor.com .
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