MOOCs – A History of Democratizing Education

Generation Rwanda’s new project, Kepler, offers affordable, American-accredited undergraduate business degrees to students in need in the Central African nation of Rwanda. Through a combination of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, and classroom instruction and discussion, Kepler’s students can take advantage of a blended approach to learning that prepares them to enter the workforce as fully competent and engaged thinkers and problem-solvers.

While MOOCs have only been around for a few years, their popularity is growing among students from economically challenged communities who might not otherwise have access to a university education. MOOCs are becoming more sophisticated, utilizing cutting-edge technology to develop into more than videotaped lectures. A MOOC in finance, technology, science, or cultural studies offers interactive, multimedia content, and real-time online interaction and discussion with instructors and other students.

While MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon, they have a long history. Correspondence courses became popular in Europe and North America during the 19th century, as postal systems developed sufficiently to support efficient communication. The London School of Economics was among the first major universities to offer what is now distance education.

In the 20th century, students benefited from radio and television as a way to access courses at a level previously unimagined. Yet the lack of contact with instructors and fellow learners continued to present a challenge. In the United Kingdom, the Open University offered an innovative solution to the technological limitations of the time. Through a combination of correspondence classes, residential short courses, and multimedia, the Open University succeeded in delivering a high-quality educational experience to a generation that came of age in the 1970s.

Fast-forward to the early years of the 21st century, when the Internet and more sophisticated, content-rich applications evolved. In 2008, George Siemens and Stephen Downes offered the first-ever class to be called a “MOOC” through the University of Manitoba, where educators brought Facebook, blogs, wikis, and other platforms into the mix. More than 2,000 students enrolled in the class. Three years later, Stanford University professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun offered a free online class in artificial intelligence that drew 160,000 students, making it the first truly “massive” open online course.

By 2015, several major companies and organizations had crystallized around the ability to provide access to MOOCs. They included EdX, Coursera, an Open University-initiated project called Futurelearn, and Norvig and Thrun’s own Udacity.