Massive open online courses (or MOOCs) have been in the news almost daily since 2011, when two Stanford University professors offered a computer science course online to 160,000 students. Some believe that MOOCs could transform access to higher education worldwide, while others fear MOOCs could also mean the end of brick and mortar universities and their faculties.

Chief Academic Technology Officer Mark Walbert will provide some background on MOOCs in a workshop to be held at 1 p.m. Monday, March 3, in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT) Resource Commons. He will also give an update on the many changes that have occurred to the market for MOOCs since 2011 and foster a discussion of the pros and cons of this online format.

The Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology asked Walbert a few questions to gain a better understanding of how MOOCs have already impacted higher education and what they might mean someday for campuses like Illinois State.

CTLT: Dr. Walbert, the title of your session is “To MOOC or Not to MOOC”—an obvious nod to Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy. Hamlet, of course, is talking about life or death. Do MOOCs represent something on the order of life or death for traditional forms of higher education?

Dr. Walbert: To some members of the academe conversations about MOOCs took on a life or death tone. Some conversations are full of enthusiasm for the potential “revolutionary” impact of MOOCs. Other conversations are filled with anxiety over the potential “revolutionary” impact of MOOCs. The decibel level of the conversations has diminished somewhat lately as MOOCs limitations are better understood. But in the early years (2011–2013) there was enthusiasm, on the one hand, that MOOCs would revolutionize and internationalize inexpensive online learning for all and anxiety, on the other hand, that they would render obsolete the role of many of the brick-and-mortar institutions of higher learning and the faculty working there.

Actually I am not the first person to see the relevance of such a title. The same title was used in a Chronicle article (February 13 2013), an EDUCAUSE conference session (October 17, 2013), several blog postings, an article in Inside Higher Ed (January 25, 2013), and many others.

CTLT: Some teachers have trouble imagining how their traditionally taught courses could be translated into a MOOC. Can any course be envisioned as a MOOC, or are certain courses more “MOOC-able” than others?

Dr. Walbert: Time will tell. At the moment I believe that courses that have “a right answer” (statistics for example) are more likely to lend themselves successfully to a MOOC format. But that hasn’t stopped faculty from offering MOOCs in subjects that are more, well, subjective.

CTLT: What distinguishes MOOCs from other forms of online learning?

Dr. Walbert: The other 159,999 classmates you have. Who also did not pay a dime to enroll. Who you may or may not interact with, either digitally or in person. Who, like you, are not likely to get college credit for the course.

CTLT: Are MOOCs primarily a way to engage new groups of students, or do they represent a migration of existing students groups from the brick-and-mortar campus to online space? Can the former be sustained if the latter also happens?

Portrait of Mark Walbert

Illinois State Chief Academic Technology Officer Mark Walbert

Dr. Walbert: For online learning in general I’d answer yes (to all three questions). Online learning in general is about engaging students who are not traditionally drawn to a brick-and-mortar school for a variety of reasons. Online learning has also become a substitute for onsite learning. And yes a university can do both and, I expect, not see the online mode significantly reduce interest in on-site learning. That said, when it comes to offering noncredit-generating courses for students interested in continuous learning not tied to a degree, MOOCs could be just another delivery option in our teaching and learning portfolio.

CTLT: What can Illinois State University faculty and staff who attend your session expect to learn?

Dr. Walbert: This presentation will provide some background on MOOCs, give an update on the many changes that have occurred to the market for MOOCs since 2008, and mention some of the pros and cons of the format. The bulk of the time will be devoted to a presentation and discussion of eight propositions put forth by William Bowen in his 2013 EDUCAUSE Review article on “The Potential for Online Learning: Promises and Pitfalls.” While he, and I, start from a position that online learning is here to stay, his eight propositions are “for us to keep in mind as we look for ways to harness information technology through the medium of online learning.”


No registration is required. The Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology is located in the Instructional Technology and Development Center, 301 South Main Street. If you need a special accommodation to fully participate in this event, please contact the CTLT front desk at (309) 438-2542.