The MOOC juggernaut rolls on – And on

The current trajectory of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, is a movement from free online courses to fee-charging, credit-bearing programmes, according to a new report from the Observatory on Borderless Education.

Prepared by Observatory Director William Lawton and research analyst Kris Lunt, the 3,700-word report says MOOCs have already become “inseparable from the questions of strategic positioning and money: investments, revenues, jobs”.

The rapid spread of such courses suggests the impact on higher education will be prolonged, with fewer people ultimately employed in universities but with more students being taught.

Although this will suit many countries – such as India, which faces a supply versus demand imbalance – the authors say that elsewhere academics and their institutions will be greatly discomfited.

“In terms of how we get from here to there, the smart money may be on innovations in blended learning using the flipped class model,” Lawton and Lunt say. “This model depends on the continuing relevance of the kind of pedagogy that is tied to research and that supports critical analysis or hands-on laboratory work.

“Institutions that rely primarily on disseminating information using face-to-face methods will have less recourse to such an evolution and will be subject to unceasing pressure to cut costs using the internet as a dissemination vehicle.”

The report follows a commentary on MOOCs published by the Observatory last August and includes up-to-date details about the way universities are adapting, or not, to the spread of such courses, not just in America but in Britain, Europe and Australia.

The writers note, however, the paucity of data on the extent of online learning in various countries.

“The exhaustive media and blog coverage of MOOCs offers neither data nor comment on their markets: who the students are, where they are, how that relates to what courses they want, and which ones are interested in degree credit.”

As well as describing how the three initial platform providers – Coursera, Udacity and edX – are expanding their reach with more universities becoming involved, Lawton and Lunt discuss the long-term process of integrating MOOC completion certificates into formal university credit.

“That process is a game changer in terms of what ostensibly drives MOOCs. Can it still be about widening access when the most important developments suggest it is part of the search by universities for new business models and competitive positioning?”

The rapid spread of MOOCs is highlighted by the example of Coursera, which Lawton and Lunt reported in August had 19 university partners and one million students signed up. They now say enrolments hit the two-million student mark in early December and by January had reached 2.3 million, increasing at a rate of about 70,000 new students a week!

“The website currently shows 213 courses and lists 33 partner universities...Quite separate from these partner course providers, in October Coursera entered into a licensing agreement with the private, not-for-profit Antioch University through which Coursera MOOCs from Duke and Pennsylvania will be offered for formal credit to students at Antioch's Los Angeles campus as part of an undergraduate degree.”

This arrangement was described in a report in Inside Higher Ed as one of the first instances of a third party buying permission to incorporate a MOOC into its curriculum for credit as a means of lowering study costs.

In their August paper, Lawton and Lunt said a distinctive feature of the Udacity model was that it appeared to have no university affiliations. Five months on, however, it has several and has just announced a partnership with San José State University, part of the California state system, for a series of remedial and introductory courses in algebra and statistics.

“This initiative was driven by the state governor in response to the state's dismal graduation rates and the fact that half the students entering the California state system cannot pass basic maths and English placement tests,” the latest report says.

“The courses, which involve videos and interactive quizzes, will be offered to a small number of students at the university and local community colleges for US$150 each.”

Referring to the third of the early providers, the paper says edX is also forging new links with American universities but, because it is a not-for-profit operation, it may not be under the same pressures as its for-profit rivals. Last October, edX announced accreditation plans with the University of Texas System – which involves 15 institutions and 190,000 students.

“The university's goal is to develop its own MOOCs that pass the normal course approval processes and get more students through college more quickly and more cheaply – the '$10,000 bachelor degree',” Lawton and Lunt say.

“The courses will be introductory ones that are part of different degree pathways. Access would be open to anyone but the universities would charge students actually enrolled at Texas to redeem their certificates for credit.”

* The report is not publicly available online but can be purchased by non-members at a cost of £100 plus VAT for EU buyers.