How Massively Open Online Courses could enable Economic Development

Massively Open Online Courses, commonly referred to as MOOCs, have gained in popularity since Harvard, MIT and Berkeley publicly came together and joined EDX.  The academic institutions made their courses free and available to anyone with an Internet connection. As seen below in the Google Trends graph, MOOCs are at their peak for search volume.

MOOCs for Economic Development

Search Trends for Massively Open Online Courses

What are MOOCs and how can society benefit from them?

MOOCs are just that, they are massively open online courses. Imagine a Massively Multiplayer Online game, like World of Warcraft, but substitute the game element with learning, researching and teaching. What you’re left with is a MOOC, which is an attempt to democratize education by making it widely available.

I jumped on the MOOC bandwagon as soon as Harvard announced that their CS50 offering would be available through EDX last September. I am ashamed to admit that I am only on Problem Set 2, which is technically the third week of material. Through this experience I have learned a load about Virtual Machines and basic principles in using C as a programming language. Beyond the hard facts, I’ve also learned that MOOCs are widely popular across the globe.

On twitter I’ve made several friends talking about #CS50 and #EDX, which has opened an international discourse revolving largely around knowledge and problem solving. Having been out of graduate school since 2009, this is the first time in a couple of years that the intellectual stimulation, in the form of classroom discussion, has come back into my life. MOOCs are a great way to encourage people to collaborate across political borders, no matter how far they have progressed through the material.

I realized that other people were thinking about MOOCs when I heard a radio segment on my local NPR affiliate. The conversation was geared towards how mid-level, and potentially overpriced, institutions would survive if universities like Harvard, MIT and Berkeley were giving away their course lectures for free. Since then, several other universities have teamed up with EDX to make their educational content available. The University of Texas System, McGill, Australian, Wellesley, Georgetown University, University of Toronto, Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, TU Delft and Rice have all gotten on board and made select curriculum available to the public for free.

What amazes me is that universities are not the only driving force behind pushing free, high caliber education. Despite being a college dropout, Bill Gates has gone on the record saying that access to education is one of the most important problems that needs to be solved in America.  In an Ask Me Anything interview conducted on Reddit, Bill Gates said “My foundation has funded a lot of MOOCs focused on community college kids or kids who have to take remedial math.”

I believe that Bill Gates hit the nail on the head with his comment about using MOOCs to get Americans up to speed with remedial math courses. This shows that people, such as Microsoft’s founder, are thinking about how open courses could be used to even the playing field; without charging tuition and subsequently sending the rest of our society deeper into student loan debt. If adopted by Community Colleges and other State Universities, such as what has been done by the University of Texas System, we could collectively educate society on the hard sciences and humanities at no cost to the student.

How Massively Open Online Courses could enable Economic Development

MOOCs could be used in conjunction with development strategies by local governments in order to prepare workforce for economic success. For instance, take my hometown of Albany, the state capital of New York, and examine the recent boom industry of Nanoscale engineering. Public and private funding has been used to turn UAlbany into a global epicenter for nanotechnology. As much as New York loves to import high skill labor into the state, it would be strategic for the state to make available course content that could get anyone interested up to speed on the subject matter.

Not everyone has access to the Internet, but Albany has several public branch libraries with accommodating hours, each city neighborhood has a branch or is within a bus ride to one. Partnering up with the brick and mortar institutions could assist in developing a new era of human capital.  No longer can cities depend on the giant brand name corporations to employ their residents and provide them with a comfortable retirement.  Cities, regions and states need to be smart in planning for clustered growth by focusing on core industries.  This is important because it allows for the comforts of co-location and cohabitation among companies within a certain industry, which would allow for more options and experience for the area’s workforce.

A city and it’s culture cannot survive without a plan.  MOOCs could be designed for, and adapted by cities, so as to develop the right kind of worker for a given industrial cluster.  A city like Albany could benefit from teaming up with the University at Albany even more.  Doing so would give the city of Albany a leg up on preparing it’s residents for the jobs of tomorrow.  Investing in the human capital locally could also enable and empower an educated workforce to spawn their own innovative ideas and start a business of their own.

Education is a central tenant to the function of economic development.  Without a talented workforce, a business cannot survive.  MOOCs make education free for all, but could also be used in a more directed manner by aiming to develop a smarter, more prepared workforce.  MOOCs could also be leveraged to prepare regions for the declining role that giant name brand corporations have on cities.  Investing in MOOCs could also energize a new wave of educated professionals looking to innovate tomorrow within your town.

Thanks a ton,