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MOOCs to be as transformative as 'BOOCs'

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Ethernet Summit During an interview at the Ethernet Innovation Summit in Mountain View, California, Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe was asked what surprises were on the horizon due to the ever more pervasive advance of the internet.

"The most exciting surprise, I think, is going to be MOOCs," said Metcalfe on Wednesday, referring to online education – Massively Open Online Courses. "Education is about to be disrupted, like iTunes did to music."

Some educators have called MOOCs a bad idea, raising the objection that online education destroys the one-to-one relationships between teachers and students. Metcalfe disagrees.

"Here's how I handle those [objections]," he said. "It goes back to the invention of another 'bad idea' – the BOOC, which is spelled today B, O, O, K. It was obviously a very bad idea, because before BOOCs, we would sit around the campfire and we would hear the story directly from the storyteller, but now we have these damn BOOC things.

"You've read The Great Gatsby but you've never met F. Scott Fitzgerald," he said. "That's a problem – so the BOOC is really a bad idea."

Dropping his facetious approach, Metcalfe spoke of the advantages that MOOCs such as Udacity, edX, and Coursera bring to education. "For one thing," he said, "education is not going to occur between the ages of five and 22 anymore. Education is going to be a life-long learning thing."

He spoke of an online course that he is now taking: edX's 600x, "Introduction to Computer Science and Programming," an MIT-taught course in which he's learning Python "from my own desk in Austin, Texas," where he holds the title of Professor of Innovation at the University of Texas.

His son, who lives in San Francisco, is taking the same course – "not that there's anything competitive going on there," he joked.

As he noted, he's considerably older than 22. "There's age discrimination in education," he said. "I'd have a hell of a time getting admitted to the University of Texas or Stanford."

In addition to vaulting over the barrier of age discrimination, he said, MOOCs also eliminate the barrier of wealth. "It costs a lot of money to go to Stanford," he said, "What, about fifty grand a year?"

Now that MOOCs are here, however, education is open to everyone. "With edX, or the other kinds of MOOCs – they're only called MOOCs for now, they'll be called something else as they evolve – now anyone, anywhere in the world can take Stanford, or MIT, or Texas courses."

Metcalfe said that edX staffers told him that they believe there is a student from every country in the world taking the MIT introduction to CompSci course that he's taking. "There's some debate about how many countries there were," he admitted. "I don't know if they're counting Texas or not."

One student, he marveled, was taking MIT's introductory computer course "from a hut in Bangladesh."

MOOCs – or whatever they'll be called, are the future. "We've solved bandwidth with the internet," he said. "We're now going to solve ignorance with the internet."

He then paused a moment. "That was grandiose," he smiled. ®

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