MOOCs – massive open online courses. Ugly acronym; beautiful idea

Julie Hare, Associate Director, Education

Here’s the thing about digital disruption; sometimes it takes longer to reach its full realisation than initially anticipated.

MOOCs – massive open online courses. Ugly acronym; beautiful idea. It’s been six years since their much-hyped arrival on the education landscape and the predicted Armageddon raining down on traditional bricks and mortar universities has not ensued. Sceptics are wondering what all the fuss was about.

First, a quick primer for the unfamiliar. Although there were a couple of early prototypes (Khan Academy and ALISON), massive open online courses arrived to great fanfare in 2011 when academics from Stanford, Harvard and MIT developed educational platforms (Coursera, Udacity and EdX) that could deliver high-quality university-equivalent online courses to vast numbers of students anywhere in the world – for free. They elevated the reach of a humble lecturer in Boston Massechussetts (or even a Nobel laureate in Canberra) from a lecture theatre packed with a few hundred lucky students to tens of thousands learners from around the world. (And did I mention they were free?)

MOOCs were lauded as the great equaliser: an impoverished student in sub-Saharan Africa or Bangladesh had equal access to courses from the world’s most elite institutions as a rich white kid from Washington DC. All they needed was access to a computer and an internet connection.

As predicted, hundreds of thousands of students around the world enrolled in courses in everything from AI to art appreciation and zoology. As The Economist succinctly put it: “An army of new online courses is scaring the wits out of traditional universities”.

But early on a few troubling trends emerged: while millions of students enrolled in an ever growing list of courses, more than 93 percent didn’t complete. And the vast majority of enrolees were in fact rich white people, mainly men. Even within developed countries like the US, rich people were five times more likely to enrol than their poorer counterparts.

And, importantly, there was no underlying business model to make this disruptive technology commercially viable.

Despite this, the world got on board as the number of MOOC platforms, institutions and courses exploded. A recent analysis reveals that 800 universities and institutions globally have developed in excess of 8000 MOOCs and enrolled well over 60 million students. Organisations such as the World Bank, Amnesty International, IBM and Microsoft offer MOOCs on various platforms helping to attract 23 million new users in 2016. At least 20, possibly more, of Australia’s 39 public universities offer MOOCs.

And the real disruption is just beginning to emerge. According to the website Class Central, which monitors the MOOC space, there was a 150 per cent increase in the number of courses in which students, if they completed, could receive a micro-credential in exchange for a small fee. Microcredentials, or badges, legitimate the learning process for students and offer employers proof of skills and knowledge acquisition.

For example, EdX’s MicroMasters program, which was piloted by MIT in 2015, has now been adopted by 23 universities including Colombia and the University of Pennsylvania, as well as local institutions Australian National University, University of Queensland, Adelaide University and Curtin. The credentials are recognised by employers, including IBM, Walmart, Volvo, Adobe, GE, Bloomberg, Ford and PWC, among others.

For example, you can study marketing analytics with the University of California Berkeley (US$716) or solar energy engineering with Delft (US$1400), leadership in global development with UQ (US$1350), AI at Colombia (US$946) or bioinformatics with the University of Maryland (US$747). A two-year, full-time, full-fee masters course at an Australian university would cost upwards of $40,000 a year – more for international students.

And in a belated move, on-campus students at Georgia Tech and MIT can enrol, and receive credit for, certain MOOCs offered by their institutions. As David A Joyner, an IT professor at Georgia Tech joyfully tweeted in mid-August: “Right now my enrolment for Fall 2017 classes right now: 1114. Bring it on.”

This is potentially the turning point for MOOCs. The New York Times predicted in 2015 that free online courses, even from the world’s best universities, were not going to revolutionise education until there was a parallel system of free or low-cost credentials that lead to jobs.

It looks like that time has come.

6 thoughts on “MOOCs – massive open online courses. Ugly acronym; beautiful idea

  1. Those designing these courses should have anticipated the poor completion rates. Even the most basic application of ‘user experience’ concept would suggest that the experience of taking these courses is extremely poor – two dimensional at best. Only those who have a high need for structure and a learning style that matches the technology are likely to complete courses voluntarily.
    Yes, the idea is good sort of….the business model was always questionable. Free or cheap.

    1. Research has shown retention rates are much higher for courses that come with a price tag — even a small one. The problem with entirely free MOOCs is that there is a lot of educational tourism — people who come for a look but never really intended to start, never might mind finish. One of the most valuable things about MOOCs in the long run will be what they have taught us about teaching and engaging large numbers of students in online courses. Personally I have done two MOOCs — one I didn’t complete and one that I did. Neither was entirely satisfying, but at least I have first hand experience of doing them.

  2. Australia had been in a unique position with its expertise in off campus, distance learning and online study (USQ 15+ years ago had international best online awards). However the innovation is now coming from elsewhere, yet MOOCs are not a panacea e.g. a former govt. minister suggesting MOOCs will preclude the need for on campus international students (MOOCS are yet to deal with high level assessment and interaction opportunities for large numbers of learners, unless they adopt multiple choice question tests etc. for assessment but contradicts Bloom’s taxonomy for high level skills?).

    Learning and technology issues are that if you want to assess learners there is still a need for qualified tutors or instructors (Master/doctorate + teaching skills), stable accessible technology e.g. good internet speed, good instructional design (not simply ‘flipping’ existing lecture content to online) and outcomes according to students and stakeholders (if you want their support and fees).

    The issue for universities is not just the competition or disruptive threat of MOOCs, but using technology well to create advantage (not just cost cutting), through using MOOCs etc. in complementing quality teaching, learning and assessment activity and outcomes.

    Smaller institutions, with smaller class sizes can make quantum leaps in competing with large physical competitors like existing universities on any common course area, and quality.

    The threat of failure is more at an institutional level through sub-optimal design, implementation, delivery and evaluation mixed with low levels of digital literacy amongst academic and corporate management.

    1. I agree, the real problem is universities outsourcing responsibility for the student experience to sub-standard online courses. As you say, the best universities will use MOOCs to complement other forms of teaching. But there is little doubt too many will see it just as cost cutting. There are huge risks with this and it needs robust regulation. But will that happen?

      1. One would think that any university delivering or planning to deliver online courses would need deep and broad needs analysis, including academics and experts in their Education Faculty (not to forget their clients i.e. students). Further, not relying on global or macro student surveys etc. to assess or evaluate quality and the student experience according to top down regulations, but also in house bottom up to give an actual picture.

        The experts for teaching, learning, assessment, instructional design, user experience, evaluation etc. application and quality are qualified teachers via any Education Faculty?

        Also, with large numbers of students on a MOOC, could be limited outcomes unless many tutors are employed e.g. how can forums be moderated and assessed well, or students creating social interactivity online (not to forget most cultures prefer face to face)?

        Further, maybe ideal set up (observed in a European university) is multiple delivery for fee paying students i.e. on campus and/or online blended learning (webinars with lecturers and student cohorts of up to 25) with mobility between two or both delivery methods, on same course.

        However, if the instructional designers (IDs), user experience (UX) people, learning system (LMS) managers, lecturers and administration have neither education skills nor compelled to elicit dynamic and informed student feedback (in addition to regulators or national bodies), there is a significant element of risk (I heard an ID complain that they knew nothing about pedagogy etc. and were working blind?).

        Simple example is when the university marketing or PR message does not match the actual student experience, then negative word of mouth can create significant level of dissatisfaction (and spread nowadays like wildfire), whether online or on campus.

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