Informal and Self-Directed Learning in the Age of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Informal and Self-Directed Learning in the Age of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

Lin Lin (University of North Texas, USA) and Patricia Cranton (University of New Brunswick, Canada)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8265-8.ch007
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One of the consequences of the new digital age is the development of opportunities for individuals to learn in a variety of new ways. Among these opportunities are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) where short, free, non-credit courses are available to anyone who wants to learn. In this chapter, the authors examine the phenomenon of MOOCs in light of informal learning and self-directed leaning conceptual frameworks. They illustrate this phenomenon with the case of Jasta, who took a MOOC course in statistics along with 950 other learners. The authors then go on to discuss the issues, controversies, and problems of MOOCs for informal and self-directed learning. They propose a series of questions that need to be addressed as we come to understand the role of MOOCs in educational systems.
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One of the challenges of today’s informal learning is the information explosion and the limited time that one has to learn what one wants to learn. Ericsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer (1993) tell us that it takes more than 10 years of deliberate practice in order to become an expert on a domain of knowledge or skill. With the exponentially accumulating and changing information, how can one be self-directed enough to learn something useful in an informal learning environment? How does one focus? How does one make the selection or judgment on what is useful information? For many, the current Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are an important channel for self-directed and informal learning. The purpose of this chapter is to examine the benefits and challenges of MOOCs using informal and self-directed learning as theoretical frameworks.

MOOCs refer to online courses aimed at unlimited participation and open access over the Internet (Siemens, 2012). They are usually short, free, and offer no credits to the participating learners. The roots of MOOCs can be traced to distance or online education as well as open education movement. Yet, several new ventures in 2012 turned massive open online courses into a new wave (Pappano, 2012). In 2012, new ventures such as Udacity, Coursera, and edX launched more than 200 online college courses and offered them for free on the Internet. These new courses are called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs (Cormier, 2008, 2010; Siemens, 2012).Among them, edX was launched by Harvard University and MIT as a non-profit organization and was later joined by the University of Texas, the University of California, and others. Coursera was launched by 33 colleges jointly as a for-profit organization featuring content from Duke, Penn State, Princeton, Stanford, Yale and many others. Udacity, another for-profit MOOCs organization, was co-founded by Stanford’s Professor Sebastion Thrun (Siemens, 2012).

Most of the current MOOCs are designed and offered for free by university professors from Ivy League schools. MOOCs usually focus on popular academic topics including biology, business, chemistry, computer science, economics, finance, electronics, engineering, food and nutrition, history, humanities, law, literature, math, medicine, music, philosophy, physics, science, statistics and more. At the time of this writing, edX ( claims that their courses are built by tech leaders like Google and AT&T using a project-based approach. For a fee, a learner can receive support, mentoring, and encouragement from “coaches,” and can receive certificates for their completed learning. In fact, a learner can obtain a master’s degree in computer science from Georgia Tech University if he or she is determined enough to complete all the courses offered for the track through Udacity. Clearly, there has been a large effort invested in merging the informal and self-directed learning environments of MOOCs with the traditional and official higher education institutions.

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