Massive open online courses (MOOCs) – time for takeoff?

In the last two years, a number of various MOOC platforms have been introduced and received a significant amount of attention in higher education news outlets. The big “bomb” arrived in the end of 2011 when Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they would start broadcasting a portion of its courses for free, openly on the internet – the MITx initiative. By now, the MITx has led to the development of edX that includes courses from MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley.

In April 2012, the big buzz word was the Udacity initiative led by Sebathian Thrun and now the newest MOOC initiative is Coursera, which is based on courses from a number of universities from US and Europe. In addition, there are providers such as Khan Academy, Minerva and others.

The fact that edX and Coursera also offer courses that are produced by specific and highly recognized universities further provides some sort of quality assurance stamp to these initiatives. Coursera has requirements about high quality courses written into the contract with the particular university – albeit in a very general manner. However, one could argue that in a context where these courses are available for scrutiny by all universities have a strong incentive  to have strong internal quality assurance routines.

Nevertheless, questions are being raised whether there is anything different with the ideas of MOOCs that has not been already there through distance learning initiatives that many universities have held for decades. While the ideas of having open courses available online is not new, the scale of the students entering MOOCs definitely seems to set them apart from earlier initiatives and the development of technology provides a massive increase in accessibility. Udacity now has over 112 000 students and MITx first course attracted over 150 000 students. However, one of the big issues for MOOCs this far is that while they can boast with enormous enrolments rates, the actual graduation rates are extremely low. For instance, of the 150 000 that signed up for the MITx course, only just above 7000 actually completed the course, indicating a graduation rate of ca 5%.

There is a claim that MOOCs are in fact not just redistribution of classes already available, but that there is a specific pedagogical thinking behind the course structure. However, this is largely questioned, for instance by Dan Butin in the eElearn magazine who argued that this is a fundamental problem of such courses, according to him they promote an old-fashioned pedagogy and do not put the student in the centre of learning, and as such “the only transformation will be that students online will fall asleep from boredom much faster than those sitting in the cramped lecture-hall seats“.

In April, when Udacity was the hot topic, Hedda associate Shane Colvin also argued that the idea is not necessarily very new, when comparing it to other online course platforms (such as iTunes U and Lynda) that have been around for some time. He further questioned the actual open and free ideology. Indeed, what makes Udacity different from the rest is that it is founded and owned by a venture capital company and as such one could wonder at what point the question of profits enters the discussion.

While the majority of these initiatives seem to stem from top universities in the US in one way or another, the various MOOC initiatives is that they have a relatively different organisation and structure. Udacity is founded by a venture capital company, Coursera is a social entrepreneurship initiative drawing on a large number of higher education institutions and EdX is a non-profit enterprise, including three of the very top universities in the world. However, despite their non-profit nature, the various MOOCs have this far attracted more than $100m of private venture capital investment and support from Google and Pearson, and the estimate is that by 2015, the sector will be worth $100bn worldwide. While introducing fees is the hot topic in a number of traditional higher education systems, these online initatives also have a potential for profits is not necessarily subscription fee but potential sales opportunities through other means.

However, the example published by Chronicle of the contract between Coursera and one university shows that  the division of revenues is already established in the contract, where the higher education institution receives a small cut (6-15% of the revenue) and it is up for Coursera to create revenue. A number of potential revenue sources have also been identified, including certification, identity verified testing to assure secure assessments, employee recruiting, employee and university screening, extended academic support, corporate universities, sponsorships and… surprise, surprise: tuition fees. Now, while including the potential for introducing fees for some courses is to be expected, this seems to go directly against the very core idea of MOOCs. Nevertheless, the inclusion of this into the contract perhaps indicates that the open and free ideology is potentially only skin deep.

While questions have been raised whether MOOCs have the potential to crumble the hegemony of the traditional face-to-face university, there is little evidence of this taking place just yet. The argument that you cannot replace traditional face-to-face learning completely was highlighted by Woodie Flowers, a MIT professor: “Education is much more subtle and complex and is likely to be accomplished through mentorship or apprentice-like interactions between a learner and an expert”. However, the various for-profit and/or online education institutions should perhaps think twice on what they can offer than MOOCs cannot, especially in the light of the issues the for-profit sector (in the US) is facing.

If you are interested in the ideas behind MOOCs, there is a number of intersting resources to view:

by: Mari Elken

Image: stock: xchng