When will MOOCs impact health care?

As an educator, I’ve come across some recent news stories that call to mind Dorothy’s observation, “we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Consider the following two.

1. Sara Volz, a high school student from Colorado, won the top prize ($100,000) in the 2013 Intel Science Talent Search for her research of algae biofuels.

She accomplished this outside of school in a home lab under her loft bed, sleeping on the same light cycle as her algae!

The other nine high school age winners’ projects were just as impressive.

2. Battushig Myanganbayar, a 15-year-old boy in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, aced a sophomore level Massachusetts Institute of Technology course (Circuits and Electronics) – the first massive open online course (MOOC) offered by the university.

He applied the knowledge to designing and building an audio-visual siren system to alert children playing in the driveway when a car was coming.

Via the MOOC, MIT became aware of Battushig who has left Mongolia and is now a 17-year-old freshman at the university.

These two examples illustrate very clearly the dramatic changes that are occurring with respect to how we teach, how we learn, and how we assess abilities and skills.

Over the past couple years, more than 100 colleges and universities have invested heavily in developing and launching MOOCs and, as more colleges enter the field, the number of students taking courses and exams on-line is growing rapidly.

When I last checked, thousands of students were enrolled in more than 118 online graduate level programs in the health sciences.

MOOCs offer greater access for a larger number of students at significantly lower cost than traditional on-site programs, and we have only begun to consider the broader implications.

For instance, educators might begin to identify students who are adept at learning online and reward the top achievers.

And health care employers and recruiting firms may begin to troll health sciences MOOCs seeking good job candidates.

Have you ever had a colleague or an employee whose knowledge and expertise far exceeded expectations that were based on traditional credentials?

The proliferation of online learning and MOOCs has certainly convinced me that there are geniuses in our midst — and they may not have gone to college.

David B. Nash is founding dean, Jefferson School of Population Health, Thomas Jefferson University and blogs at Nash on Health Policy and Focus on Health Policy.

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