In just a few short years, Massive Open Online Courses – or, as they are more commonly known, MOOCs – have gone from a novelty teaching tool to a possible education game changer. While it is still early days yet there can be no doubt that MOOCs will have a lasting impact on the education landscape of the future. The principle is simple – offer high-quality classes online to students anywhere around the globe at a fraction of the price of tradition university courses – and the implications enormous.
By their very nature MOOCs effectively work to eliminate the geographical, social, and/or financial constraints that have, heretofore, limited access to higher education. This is especially true for language learners. ESL MOOCs are not only cheaper but, because of their inherent online structure, offer immensely more flexibility than traditional language training. Though often taught by university faculty, video replays of individual lectures can be viewed at any time of the day or night and, in many cases, students can enroll in the courses themselves at any time. MOOCs not only free students from the fixity that defines the Spring, Summer, Fall semester start dates but also make it possible for students to spend more time studying and less time commuting.
The Price of Freedom
Unfortunately, such flexibility also comes with a price. Because courses are asynchronous and pre-planned, they often lack meaningful teacher feedback. This can be particularly troubling in a language course where the development of communicative ability is crucial. While a student may do everything required for his or her weekly assignments, such participation may not be enough to meaningfully improve language skills. Grammar and listening exercises are important elements of language development but so, too, is the kind of live interaction that is difficult to replicate on an often-empty online forum.
In the end, then, it is important to recognize that ESL MOOCs are not a magic bullet. Their strengths, as present, lie with vocabulary, grammar, and listening activities but would-be students should make sure to schedule some time outside of class to focus on meaningful communication. Taken together these two aspects really can change way we learn.