The leaders of the MOOC movement acknowledge the challenges they face. Perfecting the model, will require “sophisticated inventions” in many areas, from grading essays to granting credentials. This will only get harder as the online courses expand further into the open-ended, exploratory realms of the liberal arts, where knowledge is rarely easy to codify and the success of a class can hinge on a professor’s ability to guide students toward unexpected insights. The outcome of this year’s crop of MOOCs should tell us a lot more about the value of the classes and the role they’ll ultimately play in the educational system.
At least as daunting as the technical challenges will be the existential questions that online instruction raises for universities. Whether massive open courses live up to their hype or not, they will force college administrators and professors to reconsider many of their assumptions about the form and meaning of teaching. For better or worse, the Net’s disruptive forces have arrived at the gates of academia.