Which problems could MOOCs solve, and how?

The phenomenon of the massive open online course – MOOC – has made more people aware of what online learning might do for a much larger group of students than higher education currently serves.

There has been a lot of speculation about what they might mean for the future of education, universities and learning. Some of it is wild and wrongheaded. We need a more critical understanding of what MOOCs are actually achieving and what more they could do to address the really important educational challenges our institutions face.

Technology is good at solving large-scale problems and education has plenty of these. Here are just a few:
  • • Student loan debt in the United States is higher than credit card debt.
  • • 40% of student loan debt in United Kingdom will never be repaid.
  • • 1.6 million new teaching posts are needed to achieve the goal of universal primary education by 2015.
  • • By 2025, the global demand for higher education will double to approximately 200 million students per year, mostly from emerging economies.
We have big ambitions for education, but there are very large-scale problems standing in our way. How can MOOCs help?

If we look at the current performance of MOOCs we find that most report figures that leave us a long way from solving large-scale problems.

They do attract large enrolment numbers, but these are essentially meaningless. Only half ever begin the course and of those only around 30% are still active in Week 5 (for the London and Edinburgh 2013 MOOCs). That brings the scale down to around 7,000 fully active participants.

In 1995 Britain’s Open University launched its first wholly online course for more than 10,000 students, doing an accredited 20-week course and paying normal fees. In those days the completion rate for Open University courses was around 70% to 80%.

In nearly 20 years we seem to be going backwards.


Are we helping those impecunious undergraduates all over the world who are hungry for a good quality university course, enabling them perhaps to become teachers for all those primary schools we need?

If we look at the demographics of who takes MOOCs, the data remains stubbornly around 70% having one or more degrees already, at least for the London and Edinburgh MOOCs. For Coursera MOOCs the average figure is 85%.

So the problem MOOCs are solving is how to deliver free higher education to highly qualified professionals. This is not a problem we have ever articulated for education.

Meanwhile the truly big and pressing problems remain unsolved.

As a member of the Governing Board for the UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education, I was part of a team doing a project on the use of ICT in primary education. We collected interview data, videos of practice and survey data on how it was done from over 30 leading innovator schools in 19 countries.

Rather than make it just a book we decided to turn it also into a MOOC for primary teachers all over the world. Our target audience was therefore qualified working teachers and indeed that’s who we attracted: 89% have degrees and 70% are the target audience.

And 44% are from emerging markets so we are able to reach into those countries where continuing professional development of this kind could potentially make a real difference.

The course team was international, from eight different countries, and we had a week each, with some pairing. Collaboration had to be online and Googledocs was the obvious way to plan and comment as we designed.

We aimed to guide participants in developing their own plan of action for their class, or school, over the six weeks, so they would have something to take away and into practice. So there was a clear timed Study Guide to the resources and activities for each week.

And as they are all knowledgeable professionals it was essential to facilitate the sharing of their ideas and practice. This was largely done outside the MOOC’s Coursera platform, in tools such as Diigo and Padlet, but with the discussion of ideas always brought back to a forum.

Mutual support

These primary teachers proved to be an extraordinarily mutually supportive and generous group of professionals, clearly committed to doing the best for their students. The course team learned a lot, as is appropriate for continuing professional development.

We conclude that MOOCs can certainly work towards solving the problem of training the 1.6 million teachers needed to provide universal primary education, as estimated by UNESCO.

Our first MOOC for specialist teachers reached 8,000 well qualified and committed professionals. They could each use those same resources and activities to teach 25 college trainees. Each of those trainees could work with just eight local village teaching apprentices to help them become trainee teachers themselves. That adds up to 1.6 million.

Could that be one problem that MOOCs help us solve – developing the 1.6 million teachers we need for universal primary education?

* Diana Laurillard is chair of the Association for Learning Technology, or ALT, and professor of learning with digital technologies at the Institute of Education in London. This article is based on her presentation at the ALT conference on MOOCs on 27 June on future directions for MOOCs.