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.