The future of MOOCs

The internet has rendered geography irrelevant and digital options are changing consumer purchasing decisions all over the world. Computers assist pilots in airplanes, automatic teller machines replace the bank teller in most cities in the world, robot-guided mechanical arms operate in hospitals and digital newspapers and magazines are the preferred method of reading for an increasing number of people. And when was the last time you booked a flight through a travel agent?

In their book, The Second Machine Age, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee put it another way: we are at the start of the Second Machine Age where we are automating a lot more cognitive tasks.

Higher education is not exempt from the digital revolution that shapes our lives. Long before massive open online courses – MOOCs – became the subject of articles, research, conferences and webinars, online learning was already in place in many colleges and universities.

In the United States, for example, 26% or 5.5 million college students take at least one online course. For-profit online colleges have been in place for decades.

What makes MOOCs different is that some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the world make their lectures available to students throughout the world at no cost.

We know that the MOOC of today will be different from what eventually becomes not a disruption but rather an acceptable and alternative method of delivering knowledge.

There are many reasons for this, including: the inability of colleges and universities worldwide to meet the global demand for higher education through new campus development, the ‘digital native’ of today and tomorrow demanding the use of more technology in education, and research indicating that students enrolled in blended courses (online and face-to-face integration) yielded the highest course competency and satisfaction.

The Educause Center for Analysis and Research reports that 57.7% of students have said they learn more in courses with some online component.

Although MOOCs are currently free, that will likely change in the future. Although MOOCs currently do not award credit, that will likely change in the future. Although the discussion about MOOCs has centred on colleges and universities, MOOCs are likely in the future to be used by organisations outside higher education, like the International Monetary Fund and the British Museum.

A passing fad?

Since Canadian professors Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander first coined the term MOOC in 2008, barely a week goes by without some mention of MOOCs.

By 2012, MOOCs were defined as a type of online course aimed at large-scale participation and open access via the world wide web.

The major current MOOC players are: Udacity, Coursera and edX in the United States, Futurelearn in the United Kingdom, and iversity in Germany. It is impossible to give accurate enrolment numbers as the numbers change daily. It is safe to report that millions of people worldwide have viewed videos, submitted assignments and taken quizzes.

Detractors believe that MOOCs are just a passing fad and will not have a lasting impact on higher education. They base their argument on the high dropout rate (90%), the exclusion of learners without online access, the poor engagement of weaker learners and the high potential for cheating, plagiarism and for fostering a system of global ‘sameness’ in higher education learning.

Stanford professor Susan Holmes has written: “I don’t think you can get a Stanford education online, just as I don’t think Facebook gives you a social life.”

To date there is no clear path to a positive return on this educational investment. Producing quality MOOCs requires time (100+ hours to develop a MOOC), funding (US$25,000+), and technical and tutorial support. Only the most affluent schools can afford to engage in MOOC development and delivery.

Monetising MOOCs

According to the 2012 Sir John Daniel report, Making Sense of MOOCs, there are several potential business models for monetising MOOCs including issuing certificates to students who complete a MOOC, charging a fee to have examinations proctored, selling the platform to enterprises to use in their own training courses and charging tuition fees.

MOOC providers could also provide other universities with the ability to license their courses and could offer corporations recruiting services.

Supporters believe that MOOCs deliver the opportunity to ‘democratise’ higher education by allowing students and adult learners to take a course through an elite university while remaining in their own countries.

MOOCs have the potential to reach two billion potential learners. By expanding access to disenfranchised students, MOOCs have the ability to build global learning communities. Supporters also refer to the ability of MOOCs, by the ‘click’ format, to analyse how students learn.

Perhaps the greatest potential for MOOCs is that of connecting MOOC ‘graduates’ with future employers. Although edX recently reported that they would no longer offer job-placement services, several higher education experts – including Sir Drummond Bone, master of Balliol College at Oxford – believe that in the future MOOCs will have their greatest impact with future employers.

There is one aspect of MOOC delivery that is not being discussed and that is the potential impact of MOOCs on higher education administrators.

If MOOCs become a mainstream higher education delivery method, the administrative work life of admission officers, registrars, career counsellors, chief financial officers, student service deans, facilities directors and alumni directors, among others, will change.

After all the hyperbole on both the pro and con sides of MOOCs subsides, I think it is safe to predict that MOOCs will, in some way, affect higher education delivery. MOOCs will not be a substitute for the professor in the classroom. Rather they will be a supplement.

The hype and confusion today will not be the same conversation we have a year from now.

I am a big fan of Henry Thoreau who, in 1859 wrote: “We boast of our systems of education, but why stop at schoolmasters and schoolhouses? We are all schoolmasters and our schoolhouse is the Universe.”

Would Thoreau’s words apply to MOOCs?

* Marguerite Dennis is president of MJDennis Consulting, an international education consultancy. This article is based on her presentation at a session on MOOCs and transnational education at Regent’s University London’s International Partners Conference in January 2014.