The MOOCs are coming – by Jan Smits

April 16, 2013

Author Articles

MOOC survey results

photo credit: Eleni Zazani via photopin cc

A recent survey by the European University Association of their members revealed that over 40% had not heard of ‘massive open online courses’ (MOOCs).  So how much of a threat do they really pose to traditional academic teaching?  Professor Jan Smits shares his view.

Academic disciplines change and so do our methods of teaching. One of the latest developments is the rise of so-called MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses offered by universities through the internet and open to anyone in the world willing to attend the course. These are not mere web-lectures as many universities have already implemented in the last decade, but well-developed programmes with extensive possibilities for feedback by the lecturer and discussion with fellow students. In the last two years these MOOCs have made a spectacular advance in the United States where they are offered by top universities such as Harvard and MIT. A well-known success story is the course on Artificial Intelligence at Stanford, taught by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig. When it was first offered in 2010, it attracted 160,000 students from 190 different countries. Of the 200 students who had registered for the regular course only 30 were left after a few weeks: the others preferred the online-version. ‘Coursera’, the company that Stanford created to make course materials available online, now teaches more than two million students in 214 different courses offered by 33 universities throughout the world. Last year, the New York Times announced The Year of the MOOC.

Is this the end of traditional academic teaching? This was voiced at the latest annual meeting of the European Law Faculties Association (ELFA) that took place in Münster last month. And indeed: why should a student from Maastricht listen to a Dutch professor teaching him or her about English common law while there is an excellent course on this topic by Dame Hazel Genn offered at www.edx.org? Innovation guru Clayton Christensen already qualified traditional academic teaching as the next victim of ‘disruptive innovation’: it will face the same fate as the LP and the floppy disc and make way for a better and cheaper product.

This view may go too far. I believe that learning is also very much a social activity. To go to a concert of Kinky Friedman is a more intense experience than just watching a video on YouTube. But this view is perhaps hopelessly old-fashioned. Without any incentive from my part, my students create Facebook communities for the courses that I teach. This helps them to stay in contact and discuss the topics looked at in the course. One thing is clear to me: as soon as there is more clarity on questions of accreditation and financing of online-education, MOOCs will surely become heavy competitors of more traditional forms of education.

Jan Smits photoJan Smits holds the Chair of European Private Law at Maastricht University and is Research professor of Comparative Legal Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is also the academic director of the Maastricht European Private Law Institute and HiiL Chair Visiting Professor Internationalisation of Law. His research interests are in the field of private law, legal theory, comparative law and internationalisation of law, and he is author of a number of books including The Mind And Method Of The Legal Academic.  In 2010 he was elected member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Apart from his academic activities, Jan Smits is an enthusiastic long distance runner.

See also ‘What do Legal Academics Do?‘ – by Jan Smits

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