‘A classroom of thousands’: Disrupting entrepreneurial education with Massive Open Online Courses

Online education has grown up in the last decade. But recent movements toward “MOOCs” — classrooms of thousand — may hold online learning’s greatest disruptive potential yet.

For some, “online schools” connote giant enterprises that do much of the same work as traditional universities: charging students a hefty, debt-incurring premium for a credential that does not necessarily indicate the student has learned.

The only substantive difference is that for-profit online schools offer more options for distance learning than do brick-and-mortar institutions. This is not revolutionary. But online education does not stop where the for-profits come in. Online education can radically disrupt by creating new models, not emulating brick-and-mortar schools.

What are MOOCs?

A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) differs from what we traditionally think of as online courses. With MOOCs, there are no set coursework requirements, learning is not hampered by set classroom materials like textbooks, and there is no cap on how many students can enroll. MOOC students learn from various instructors and from each other, sharing their information on RSS feeds, blogs, websites, and more.

MOOCs aggregate a massive amount of information from the web on a particular topic, and then make sense of this information by later organizing it. Students use different platforms to communicate with each other as they learn.

The first MOOC as we understand it today was offered in 2008 to 25 enrolled students at the University of Manitoba and 2,300 online students who had no affiliation with the university, completely free of charge. The course was called “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge.” It endeavored to help students understand that learning could occur in a variety of non-linear, connective ways, which is the bedrock philosophy of all MOOCs today.

How effective are MOOCs?

The most successful MOOC to date occurred in the fall of 2011, when Stanford computer science professor Sebastian Thrun and colleague from Google, Peter Norvig, offered a class on Artificial Intelligence.

Initially, about 200 Stanford University students enrolled and, since enrollment was open to the public online, a whopping 160,000 students from 190 different countries joined in. Eventually, the number of in-class students dropped from 200 to 30 after being given the option of taking the class online. 23,000 students completed the course, and only 248 received a score of 100 percent. None of these students attended Stanford. The online, ‘classroom of thousands’ found students even more capable than those at the university.

In a recent New York Times article, Professor Thrun noted how amazed he was by the enthusiastic learning culture that grew out of the course he offered. Translators volunteered to set the course into over 44 different languages. Students discussed and developed the course on social media and forums.

How will MOOCs change how we understand and develop entrepreneurship in the future?

So what can MOOCs do to further develop the idea of radical social entrepreneurship? Of course, MOOCs themselves are the product of the vision of a few social entrepreneurs who desire to change today’s system of credentialing.

The idea that a sound, quality education can really be open to all is, in itself, revolutionary.

But consider this: social entrepreneurship in the 21st century shares many of the same tenets that MOOCs do. These movements share the notion that great ideas are developed and harnessed collaboratively, that knowledge knows no geographical or socioeconomic borders, and that shared and open information leads to greater leaps in scientific and society.

After all, the literature of entrepreneurship has long established the notion of “co-creation.” Social entrepreneurship has taken this idea to new lengths as can been seen here and here.

If MOOCs become a more common way of learning, then MOOC students who have understood the learning process to be dynamic and collaborative will bring this mindset to their own projects. Learning communities (and sub-communities) emerge naturally from the MOOC process. These endeavors are likely to be more inclusive and socially-oriented, with the goal being advancement in the name of the common good.

By treating education as a massively open, collaborative process, MOOCs have the potential to spread a disruptive entrepreneurial philosophy through their classrooms of thousands.
By Hajera Blagg. Hajera is a freelance writer based in Houston. Her primary writing focus is education, but her interests run the gamut, from politics to personal finance to parenting and more. Hajera welcomes feedback at hajera.n.blagg [at] gmail [dot] com.

The World of Massive Open Online Courses
Presented By: Online Colleges


  1. […] behind the MOOC and the notion of rad­i­cal social entre­pre­neur­ship. In a post enti­tled: ‘A class­room of thou­sands’: Dis­rupt­ing entre­pre­neur­ial edu­ca­tion with Mas­siv… she writes: If MOOCs become a more com­mon way of learn­ing, then MOOC stu­dents who have […]

  2. […] are run and managed under social entrepreneurship, then I wonder what MOOC would look like?  Radical social entrepreneurship sounds innovative and disruptive, when applied to education.  Such MOOCs have now developed into […]

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