When MOOCs first burst onto the scene in 2012 — the year The New York Times dubbed ‘the year of the MOOC’ — their success was enabled largely by the convergence of four key technologies: cloud computing, video distribution at scale, gamification and social networking. Without these technologies, we would not have the high quality digital learning at scale that we now enjoy. What was the impact of these technologies and how have they developed?
The proliferation of cloud computing allowed for all companies and industries to scale exponentially, and online learning was no exception. It enabled online learning platforms to be responsive, fast and most importantly, to scale, thereby reaching anyone with an internet connection. For example, only a few hundred learners were expected in the first edX Circuits and Electronics course from MIT. However, when 10,000 learners enrolled in the first few hours of launch, the team was able to seamlessly scale the number of cloud servers to meet the huge demand with a few mouse clicks. This was an incredible innovation for education because it created an environment for high quality learning experiences at scale. Today, advancements in cloud computing capabilities have not just increased the ease of distribution for online learning but have also enhanced the overall learning experience.
Video Distribution at Scale
Video sharing and distribution was coming into its prime just as MOOCs were starting to gain initial momentum, with the rise of YouTube and Vimeo allowing for easy distribution of high quality videos. Video distribution at scale itself has benefited from foundational technologies like content distribution networks and caching, and real-time high-quality video encoding and decoding standards and systems. Video is a central component of online learning, and without these capabilities in place, MOOCs may never have taken off in popularity. In the past 10 years the ability to upload and share videos has become easier and faster than ever, which makes it even easier to share educational content today.
Research has shown that students learn better and retain more when they receive instant feedback and they actively engage in the learning process. Active learning often uses simulation-based games, virtual labs, and other interactive assignments for learning and knowledge checks. These engage students in higher-order thinking tasks such as design, analysis, synthesis and evaluation while also incorporating gaming elements that make the task more engaging and fun. As computation and networks became even more powerful and available at our fingertips on smartphones, tablets and laptops, rigorous, engaging learning content became easier to produce. It is exciting to think about how advancement in AI over the next decade will allow for even more engaging and personalized learning at scale.
The ability to collaborate with peers from across the globe is a unique experience that is key to an individual’s learning journey. Social media seems ubiquitous now, but it was just taking off when MOOCs were first coming onto the scene. Because people were so open to making connections and sharing experiences online, the idea of making these types of connections in a learning space was not completely foreign. In fact, many online students love the ability to connect with fellow students from across the globe and collaborate on assignments, have discussions and share their experiences.
The first MOOC on edX had a discussion board that was an integral part of the platform and learning experience. The engagement on the board was exponentially more than expected, and led to both instructors and fellow learners answering the hundreds of questions that were posted on the board. This was the first indication that social networking and online discussions had the huge potential to foster learning by teaching within the course, and open up limitless possibilities to create global communities.
The Next Four Impactful Technologies
It is clear that these four technologies created a unique environment allowing for the success of MOOCs and the growth of online learning around the world. It will be equally exciting to see how another four big technological movements of today — AI, big data analytics, AR/VR and robotics — will impact education over the next decade. But that will be the subject of an article at a future time.