Top universities embrace MOOCs, but opinion is divided

Elite universities, especially in America, are engaging enthusiastically in massive open online courses, or MOOCs. “They see opportunities for brand enhancement, pedagogic experimentation, recruitment and business model innovation,” says a review of MOOCs published by the UK government last week. But there are conflicting strands of opinion that are dividing the higher education community.

Top institutions are providing brand, content, funding, staff, badging and policy support to MOOCs, and are reporting positively on MOOC experiments, “describing a process of maturing, expansion and deepening,” says the review.

“There are dissident voices in the elite institutions, however, and the arguments they are assembling against MOOCs remain strong and vocal.”

Smaller or less prestigious institutions have not engaged strongly with MOOCs, the report points out, “either through lack of appetite, lack of capacity, or lack of opportunity. Often, smaller players who have considered the MOOC issue have sounded alarm bells – they see threats of being left behind, of losing market share and recruits.”

The Maturing of the MOOC – Literature review of massive open online courses and other forms of online distance learning was published by the UK Department of Innovation and Skills. It aimed to capture the state of knowledge and opinion on MOOCs and open and distance learning, or ODL, and identify important issues.

The lead author was Stephen Haggard, an independent consultant on e-learning. Expertise was provided by the Centre for Distance Education at the University of London, with Tim Gore and Tom Inkelaar contributing, and the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, with Dr William Lawton and Alex Katsomitros contributing.

Growing literature, differing views

The report found an extensive literature on MOOCs, in journals, the specialist education press, blogs and general media. More than 100 recent literature contributions were assessed, and MOOC experts were interviewed.

Two “conflicting strands of opinion” emerged from the literature.

One strand of enthusiasts “welcomes the shake-up and energy MOOCs bring to learning, teaching and assessment. They report positively on learning experiences and innovative formats of pedagogy, and spotlight themes such as access, empowerment, relationship building and community. This strand is particularly prevalent in the general press,” it says.

The second strand of sceptics are tempering enthusiasm around two themes: that the ‘benefits’ of MOOCs have long been realised through ODL “and the innovations of MOOCs are the victory of packaging over content”; and that the MOOC format has weaknesses around access, content, quality, accreditation, pedagogy, poor engagement with weaker learners, and exclusion of learners without networking skills.

There have been numerous expert appraisals of MOOCs, and this largely more impartial and comprehensive literature “tends to acknowledge (with a few exceptions) that MOOCs bring an impetus of reform, research and innovation to the academy.

“All reports foresee dramatic imminent change as a result,” the report says. “Some suggest, however, that the MOOC proposition lacks novelty, and the scale of MOOC impact, along with its potential to transform universities, may be over-hyped.

“This literature detects failings in the MOOC format around sustainability, quality, equality, equity, financial viability, learning quality and accreditation. However, it also reports initiatives to address them, and consistently identifies MOOCs as a tipping point for higher education,” the authors write.

“The survey suggests that after a phase of broad experimentation, a process of maturation is in place. MOOCs are heading to become a significant and possibly a standard element of credentialed university education, exploiting new pedagogical models, discovering revenue and lowering costs.”

Further, MOOC analyses display variations on the same conclusion: “MOOC formats will pose huge challenges for existing higher education institution business models, for institutions at all levels, for pedagogy, and for international education.”

But analyses vary in the positives they discern alongside disruptive elements: “At their most benign, MOOCs may drive innovation and experimentation, leading to improved learning and lower costs and a managed restructuring.

“At their most ferocious, MOOCs will force many higher education players to radically transform themselves, or die if they fail to adapt, and a chaotic rout of the sector is in prospect.”

Burning issues

The burning issues for MOOCs are a viable business model and accreditation of learning.

There is an emerging picture of MOOCs’ falling costs and growing revenues. “Whether this adds up to a viable business model is being tested with a new generation of low-cost accredited degrees based on MOOC principles being prepared by some leading US colleges,” says the report.

“Accreditation is discussed in the literature mostly to the extent that it offers a route to revenue for US MOOC platforms and possibly for colleges. This debate has not been seriously applied to the UK yet – but there is every reason to expect it will come.”

The extent to which MOOCs are a genuine innovation, or a mere repackaging of open learning, is a significant theme in the academic literature, the report says.

On another hot topic, drop-out rates, authors argue that this is irrelevant. “Reasons include the high drop-out rate in many types of learning, and the evidence that with no penalty for exit or entry, lapsing from MOOC enrolments is simply not a significant decision.”

Learner analytics technology is reaching its full potential with MOOCs. “Applications will enable students to be served more engaging material based on their individual profiles. Adaptive learning is a real possibility. Interventions can be targeted to secure completion.”

Another important issue for many writers about MOOCs is the networking, reputational and learning skills that MOOC environments require for successful learning. “Online autonomy, group formation and inclusion-exclusion feelings among learners are a vital dynamic in MOOC learning, and are probably insufficiently understood.”


Historically, MOOCs are an evolution of previous experiments in open education and online learning. The term emerged in 2008 to describe a type of open online course format, and applies to any course offered free, online and at scale.

“What marks the MOOC out from conventional online learning is that no professional academic time (or virtually none) is allocated to guiding or supporting individual learners,” says the report. “Some aspects of some MOOCs are now charge-bearing (such as credit-bearing examinations) and this trend is spreading as MOOCs begin to offer accredited learning.”

There are currently two classes of MOOC, the cMOOC and the xMOOC.
  • • cMOOCs – a C for ‘connectivist’, the educational theory that inspired them – are run on open source learning platforms and led by academics. The pedagogical model is peer learning. The founding institutions of cMOOCs were Abathasca and Manitoba universities in Canada.
  • • xMOOCs are online versions of traditional learning formats involving lectures, instruction and discussion, on specialist software platforms owned by private enterprises. They feature contractual and commercial relationships between universities who create content, and technology providers. The three largest platforms are edX, Udacity and Coursera.
MOOCs, the report says, are still an emerging phenomenon.

“There is organisational instability in the sector, with partnerships being rapidly forged and broken. The business models and products of the main players are not established, and have little common ground. Crucial issues such as whether the MOOC learner experience is worthy of accreditation, are yet to be settled.”

Learner experiences positive

Currently, the typical MOOC course takes place over four to 10 weeks, most of them given to learning and a final week or fortnight to producing a piece of work. It is estimated that students on average dedicate two to six hours a week to a course.

“Materials are consumed in diminishing volumes throughout the MOOC as many learners’ commitment wanes.” And while tens of thousands of people may apply for a MOOC, there are usually only hundreds who complete and obtain certificates.

Learners’ experiences in MOOCs are examined in literature, and distinctions have been found between learners who are ‘auditing’, ‘sampling’, ‘disengaging’ and ‘completing’. MOOC analysts like Phil Hill and colleagues have developed typologies of learners. Hill’s typology identifies:
  • • Lurkers, who enrol but just observe or sample a few items.
  • • Drop-ins, who are participants in a select topic within the course, but do not attempt to complete the entire course.
  • • Passive participants, who view a course as content to consume and expect to be taught but tend not to participate in activities or class discussions.
  • • Active participants, who fully participate in the MOOC, including consuming content, taking quizzes and exams, writing assignments and peer grading. They actively participate in discussions via social media.
Edinburgh University, which ran Coursera'a first UK MOOCs, has undertaken some statistical analysis of its more than 300,000 applicants for its first six MOOCs. It surveyed 45,000 users on entry, and 15,000 on exit from MOOCs, and among other things found:
  • • A very high proportion of window-shopping learners in all MOOCs.
  • • 176 nationalities participated.
  • • Dramatic declines in participation from enrollment to week one.
  • • A very small proportion (3%) of completing learners felt they had not ‘got what they wanted’ out of the courses – implying a high level of satisfaction.
  • • Participation patterns after commencement varied widely between the six MOOCS.
  • • Main reasons given for joining the courses were: curiosity about MOOCs and online learning; and a desire to learn new subject matter.
  • • Career advancement and obtaining certificates were less important motivations.
  • • MOOC learners in terms of attitudes, skills and motivation are more akin to lifelong learning students in traditional universities than to students on degree programmes.
The literature generally also reveals a quite enthusiastic response from MOOC users. “The benefits of MOOCs to learners come in the form of access to high quality material, and new kinds of collaborative learning experiences in some types of MOOC,” says the report.

While receiving credit does not appear to be a major motivation for learners so far, there are "clear signs" that this will change.

“Writers assess MOOCs as challenging environments that can discourage or disorientate many learners, as witnessed by the low percentages completing. However, the literature also shows that mere completion is not a relevant metric, that learners participate in many valid ways, and that those who do complete MOOCs have high levels of satisfaction.”

Recommendations for further research

The authors believe that the UK’s further and higher education sectors “face significant risks or opportunities around MOOCs, worth investigating and understanding in advance”, in two areas: potential disruptions in higher education; and technology solutions for accreditation, assessment and authentication.

MOOCs would “disrupt business as normal” in several domains. “Undergraduate teaching and recruitment, pedagogy, commercial CPD [continuous professional development], and most particularly international recruitment and reputation may be sharply affected. This is a view shared by nearly all authors.”

The report suggests research to control these risks. First, developing knowledge and experience inside the UK academy about using MOOCs to preserve or increase earnings from overseas learners, and in commercial CPD and, second, studies of non-UK MOOC users to understand how and why perceptions might favour UK MOOC brands.

Regarding technology development, the report says the competitive advantages of MOOCs provided by UK institutions or on UK platforms would be increased by a technological lead in: adaptive learning driven by learner analytics; badging and accreditation technology; and authentication technology that would leverage robust and proven peer assessment methods.

MOOCs, the report concludes, demand policy and research responses from policy-makers.