MOOCs – Mistaking brand for quality?

In 2012 MOOCs were the sensation of the year in US higher education, and they continue to fascinate the media and bloggers. The recent annual conference of CHEA, the US Council for Higher Education, in Washington, DC, held a session on MOOCs that brought together the enthusiasm of Coursera – a for-profit start-up that helps some 30 universities to offer MOOCs – the views of university President Paul Leblanc, and the perspective of US regional accrediting body NEASC (New England Association of Schools and Colleges).

Where are MOOCs going?

Educational technology has a history of fads. However, the volume of MOOCs activity, even though largely US-based, means that MOOCs will evolve rather than disappear.

The UK is now joining the fray as Futurelearn, a new company owned by the Open University and which includes 10 top UK universities, the BBC and the British Council – launches its global MOOCs initiative.

Other countries will follow suit including, hopefully, some developing countries.

Following Coursera’s claim that its MOOCs are the answer to excess demand for higher education in poor countries, the movement already has a neocolonialist flavour. This will raise hackles, as did the first open educational resources (OER) when MIT launched its open courseware in 2001.

However, as well as MOOCs there are initiatives to expand online programmes with less fanfare. Thirty US state universities have teamed up successfully with Academic Partnerships. Students gain credit and degrees and there is a sustainable business model.

Some of its university partners will make the first course in their regular online programmes a credit-bearing MOOC and Academic Partnerships is now seeking alliances in developing countries.

In another promising experiment edX is working with Bunker Hill and Mass Bay community colleges are to offer MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming MOOC to 20 students. This will show whether using MOOC material can strengthen other institutions.

What about quality?

At the CHEA conference NEASC’s Barbara Brittingham suggested that accreditation and quality assurance agencies should let the MOOCs bandwagon roll for a while before turning their attention to it. Since these agencies focus primarily on study leading to credit and awards, which is not yet the case with most MOOCs, the market can take care of things for the time being.

Another paper noted that quality assurance systems for orthodox university courses and programmes usually make judgements after reviewing quality on various dimensions such as student support, student counselling and, above all, completion rates.

In most MOOCs these are either absent or, in the case of completion rates, dismal. But competition will now produce greater diversity and healthy experimentation in MOOCs. Soon the media, student groups and educational research units will start publishing assessments of MOOC courses that will feed into quality rankings.

Meanwhile, it is risky to assume that university brand is a surrogate for course quality.

Research universities, which have little previous experience of online teaching, dominate the MOOCs offerings and this is evident in the outdated behaviourist pedagogy most in evidence. Most MOOCs are little more than OER with test material added.

MOOCs and the new dynamics of higher education

MOOCs are just one manifestation of the emerging trends explored at UNESCO’s 2009 World Conference, on the “New Dynamics of Higher Education”.

Online learning and various new providers are responding to a major global development, the massification or universalisation of higher education that is creating huge and unmet demand in the developing world.

Compared to the earlier 1998 UNESCO higher education conference, the international spread of quality assurance was a major discussion item in 2009. Quality assurance agencies have multiplied into most jurisdictions.

However, speaking at that time, CHEA President Judith Eaton described this trend as "the spread of the familiar", concerned that there was not enough variety in approaches to quality assurance around the world.

The universalisation of higher education will require quality assurance to face many new challenges, and one definition of quality will not fit all.

Open education

MOOCs and the related phenomenon of OER are just two new developments that challenge traditional approaches to quality assurance. How does one determine the quality of OER, given that their main purpose is to evolve as people adapt, modify and reuse them?

The 2012 Paris OER Declaration, in one of its recommendations, called on states to: “Promote quality assurance and peer review of OER. Encourage the development of mechanisms for the assessment and certification of learning outcomes achieved through OER.”

This is easier said than done, but the focus on assessment, certification and learning outcomes is right. If in doubt, quality assurance should always focus on what students are gaining from their study.

Competency based-education

In this respect, the expansion of competency-based education is an important development, which inspired a thoughtful talk at CHEA by Paul LeBlanc of the Southern New Hampshire University.

Another contribution, by Sunny Lee of Mozilla, showed that open badges are an effective way of certifying competency-based learning. Quality assurance must adapt to such new methods of communicating learning outcomes.

Disaggregating accreditation, unbundling QA?

Accreditation and quality assurance are now facing a world where the teaching-learning process is increasingly disaggregated. The processes of teaching and certification used to be integrated in the same institution, but now there are a multitude of providers, some public, some private, some for profit, looking after different parts of the student experience.

Do accreditation and quality assurance also need to unbundle their work? Barbara Brittingham noted that when institutions incorporate into their awards significant credit obtained or certified elsewhere, accreditation must take an interest in these other providers.

This will certainly apply to credit from MOOCs, where it is likely that bodies other than those offering the MOOCs – either other higher education institutions or consortia like OERu – will award credit and help students to progress towards a degree.

The main objective of the CHEA International Quality Group is to review the changing needs for quality assurance as they emerge internationally. MOOCs provide a striking example of the challenge.

* Stamenka Uvalic-Trumbic is senior advisor, international affairs, CHEA.