One of the most interesting aspects of it, though, is that when people are finished they earn badges.
People involved in studying learning are avidly looking at this, as they are at Khan Academy, TED Talks, and other digital learning experiments. These can tell us whether face-to-face communication is required to convey certain forms of knowledge. So far the suggestion is that for transmission of established knowledge, careful delivery in person or online may be equally effective. (Those who seek the online form may be more motivated than those forced to take a regular class.)
One of the most interesting aspects of it, though, is that when people are finished they earn badges. Like Boy and Girl Scouts, the badge owners may display the badges as they like, perhaps on their Facebook page or somewhere else. The badge has no official currency, and for now does not cost anything to amass. (This will change, I predict.)
Whether employers will value such displays of mastery, learning, or completion is one of the big questions.
Some people criticize the MOOCs because many who begin a course do not complete it, just as many who begin college do not complete the two or four years required to amass enough credits for the degree.
Credentials are one of the goals of schooling, to be sure, but the joy of learning, the fun of flipping around the TED library, the amazement of learning something random through the MOOC catalogues may very well challenge the whole edifice. Already in technical training, certificates are replacing degrees. In some such training programs, students complete specific modules that may be relevant for a particular use, perhaps as the needs of a job demand.
When we separate evaluation and authentication from the simple accumulation of credits, we acknowledge that the system of credentialing as it has evolved may not be working. It may not work for students, and it may not work for employers.
So if one of the goals of school is to signal a kind of disposition on the part of students, one of the goals of these newer forms of learning may indicate that satisfaction—like a T-shirt from a 5K race—can be personal rather than institutional. And this is an enduring disposition: that people like to learn things. Even school can’t entirely destroy that passion, though in some cases it sure looks as if it tries.