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This article was published on February 4, 2014

Massive Open Online Courses come home to high tech

Massive Open Online Courses come home to high tech
Steven Villarreal

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) aren’t new anymore, but they continue to gain ground.

Take a Harvard professor who’s been teaching “Concepts of the Hero in Classical Greek Civilization” since the 1970s. He put his course online, made it interactive, and removed the enrollment cap. What happens? Suddenly, the course goes from serving a few hundred Ivy League undergrads in Cambridge, Mass. to 31,000 students around the globe.

Or take a collaboration between the World Bank and Coursera to deliver training in the third world to address a shortage of relevant job skills. Suddenly, world-class education is as close as the nearest Internet connection.

Like the open source software movement, MOOCs are driven by a desire for openness, transparency, collaboration, and free access to knowledge and technology. That’s a far cry from the “push” model of traditional educational system where an instructor disseminates content and students dutifully absorb it for later recitation.

At their best, MOOCs fundamentally disrupt this model. Sure, there’s a registration process and learning outcomes, but much of the learning happens through collaboration and independent exploration of Web-based resources.

The MOOC model makes two fundamental and disruptive assumptions: information is everywhere, and powerful new knowledge is generated through widespread collaboration. Those ideas would have seemed far-fetched when Professor Gregory Nagy started teaching his Harvard students about Greek heroes in 1978, but today, in the age of cloud computing, they seem almost self-evident.

Even though MOOCs have been around in some form since 2008, the high tech world has been slow to adopt them as a learning tool. In fact, we’ve been following the lead of universities and academics as they find ingenious ways to get content out into the ether.

Even though the massive scalability that supports a MOOC is made possible by high tech innovations like cloud computing and global content delivery networks, the industry is only recently tapping the MOOC’s potential. It’s like we sold education a racing engine and are only now getting around to putting it under our own hood.

Today, MOOCs are popping up everywhere within the high tech space. MongoDB, the leading NoSQL database, offers two of them to developers around the world. Google also recently collaborated with edX to build a platform at where any educator, business or individual can put together and offer a freely available course.

In 2014, it’s clear that MOOCs have left the confines of the university hedgerows.

Rackspace has been offering free, open, online training and certification around cloud computing for several years. But in addition to launching a new social learning platform at CloudU, we’re excited to be launching a vendor neutral MOOC that covers the evolution of a cloud solution this month. We’re also planning a MOOC on Big Data to be launched later in the year.

For us, it feels a little like a homecoming. As a co-founder of OpenStack (open source cloud computing software), the MOOC model is in complete alignment with our core values around openness, transparency and collaboration.

As college expenses skyrocket and as access to education in the third world continues to be a barrier to prosperity, it makes sense that the MOOC is fundamental to the evolution of technology and education.

Through the online learning tools—from forums to gaming to interactions with industry experts—technology must move education from an instructor-led approach to a community-driven approach. After all, it’s the exponential power of the crowd that underpins so much of modern social sharing, and we should all hope to do some of the learning along the way ourselves.