Will MOOCs be Game Changers?

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Since the beginning of this year the term “MOOCs” has been receiving a great deal of attention. Massive Open Online Courses, a Canadian innovation, are seen as a major development in higher education. New companies and organizations - Coursera, edX, Udactity, the People's University and others – have been formed with venture capital from the private sector, or from the endowment funds of universities, and new MOOCs are being launched almost every week.

Free to the learner, MOOCs are high quality online courses from some of the world’s leading universities. Students register, study video lectures and related material, and complete computer scored assessments. In some courses they participate in online conversations and peer activities. At the end of the course, for those that seek it, a letter of completion is issued. While this has no credit value, the letter does make it clear that the learner has completed a specific course.

MOOCs are being seen as transformative. They bring courses to a new market - those wishing to learn, but not seeking credit. They make world class knowledge and skills freely available.

However, MOOCs are also increasingly seen as a threat to the conventional offerings of traditional universities and colleges. They are being dismissed by many critics on the basis that the drop-out rates are high, students cannot get credits towards a credential, and the business model is poor.

The Critics

The first criticism is that the drop-out rates are high - just a fraction of those who start are issued letters of completion. In one example, a single course attracted 125,000 learners, 38,000 of whom secured a letter of completion. However, these numbers must be viewed in the proper context.  Normally, when taught in a traditional way, this course had some 35 students complete each year. One offering of this MOOC produced the equivalent of 100 years of students who completed this class.

A second criticism is that students cannot use their letter of completion towards a credential.

Two developments have changed this. The first is that some of the universities offering MOOCs now do so for credit (the University of Washington, for example), The second, and more recent, is that a US credit assessment agency, which is widely used for prior learning and foreign credential assessment, has agreed to assess a student with MOOC completion letters for a small fee of $40. 

The third criticism is that the business model of the largest of these providers - Coursera, said to have 1.7 million students - is unsustainable.

The response is that this is what everyone said about Facebook, LinkedIn and Google at their start-up. While their revenue is clearly not coming from student fees, venture capitalists are not known for benevolence when investing - they see sustainability in these developments and expect a return on their investments.

So how should we understand this phenomenon?

Finding a New Market

The key for post-secondary education is to find students and deliver to new markets. Registrations for conventional semester-based face-to-face classes in colleges and universities in North America are growing at no more than 1.5-2% each year. Online learning, in contrast, is growing by 10% each year.

MOOCs offer flexibility, affordable access and fast-track completion at a low cost for those simply interested in learning. Boomers and other adults looking to develop their understanding and knowledge, these are new and emerging markets. While some may seek a credential, most of the early MOOC takers were more interested in the learning than the credential.

Build the New Market

Having started with a bang early in 2012, the challenge for MOOCs is to build a strong market with courses and programs from elite institutions. From an initial group of sixteen universities involved with Coursera, there are now close to forty universities in total across all the organizations offering MOOCs. Now colleges are joining and some high school programs are planned. MOOCs are on the move.

It is now possible for a student to chose a MOOC from one of the fifty or more universities, study that course, receive assessment, engage in peer activity and secure credit for $40US through the American Council on Education. As the portfolio of courses expands, a two year associate degree could be secured for less than $1000. This is potentially game changing, especially at a time when the cost of courses is rising as governments subsidize public institutions at an increasingly lower rate, forcing them to charge their students more. The equivalent Canadian cost of such a two-year degree approaches $10,000.

Building Brand Credibility

MOOCs have been building brand recognition. Coverage around the world has been strong and positive and the New York Times, as well as Fortune magazine, has seen them as game changers. Those behind MOOCs have also ensured that the universities joining the MOOC family have strong brand recognition, not just locally or nationally, but globally.

Credibility has also come from volume. Some 1.7 million people took MOOCs from Coursera in 2012 and another half million were enrolled in a MOOC from another organization. This is giving the "MOOC Movement" street credibility.

Leveraging scalability

The key to the infrastructure required to operate a MOOC is scalability. Two courses from the University of Toronto, for example, have attracted a total of 170,000 learners. Each learner has to be able to access on-demand video using their own technology (MOOC's work on the basis of BYOD - "bring your own device"), the assessment systems have to be responsive and provide feedback and need also to manage identity concerns - some MOOC providers are looking at bio-based identify requirements (finger prints, retina readers and related devices). These are all aspects of managing the learner experience.

Moving from one instructor per section of 35 students, to one instructor to an infinite number of students who can complete the course and have the option of credit, fundamentally changes the work of the institution. A faculty which decides that all of its first-year courses are available  by MOOCs could end up with having thousands of students ready for years two to four with no new costs The MOOC providers have built the infrastructure that would provide this opportunity.

But there are growing needs to improve the quality of the materials students are working with - the video instructional materials, assessment and peer reviewed assignments. MOOC providers are working on these matters.

Building on initial success

Now that MOOCs are ending their first year of operation, the challenge will be to build on this initial success. This will require more course choice, more options for credit, more variety in the level of courses available (from high school, through apprenticeship and college programs to PhD) and more opportunities to engage the learner. In reports of MOOCs and in interviews with MOOC providers, these are all part of the thinking.

Will MOOCs be game changers?

They have already changed the conversation about the viability of online learning and about the idea of scale. Some universities and colleges have started to realize that the model of one instructor to thirty or forty students is not the only model and are looking at the kind of models online universities have been using for years - separating design and development from delivery and deployment. MOOCs are also showing the potential of separating learning from assessing for credit - something that has great potential for transformative change.