Far from bust: five ways MOOCs are helping people get on in life

Online learning is now a little wiser and more sustainable. elearning via scyther5/www.shutterstock.com

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – free, short courses made available to everybody online – were expected to herald the end of higher education as we knew it when they began. But the hype soon died away and critics bemoaned the fact that learners quickly lost enthusiasm and dropped out in large numbers.

After promising free education to those who couldn’t afford soaring tuition fees, most people signing up to do free online courses were also already highly educated – 80% already held a degree according to one study. And there were concerns that employers would not trust certificates from MOOCs on CVs.

It appears that MOOCs have followed the well-worn footsteps of earlier innovations in what analyst firm Gartner has called the “hype cycle”: they have moved from the “peak of inflated expectations” to the “trough of disillusionment”.

But we think that MOOCs will soon emerge blinking into the daylight of Gartner’s “plateau of productivity” – older and less exciting, but perhaps a little wiser and more sustainable. We’ve picked out five key aspects of how people are really using MOOCs now that the early “boom and bust” phases of their life cycle have passed.

1. MOOCs as teaching laboratories

Many institutions, are using MOOCs to develop high quality online learning materials, such as Rice University in the US. Educators use materials in MOOCs to test out their teaching methods and materials, with ready feedback from high numbers of learners, with diverse backgrounds and aspirations. In many cases, these materials are also then re-purposed for use on campus, often in what is called the “flipped classroom” model, where students are asked to prepare for class by accessing online materials.

Sometimes this is satisfactory for the lecturers, such as one professor at the California Institute of Technology who said it exposed students to the material twice and gave them time to reflect. But sometimes it has raised more concerns than satisfaction – such whether or not students will actually watch videos set as homework.

2. Enhancing careers

Several surveys suggest that learners are using MOOCs to enhance their attractiveness to employers. A study by the University of Minnesota found that most of its MOOC learners were enrolling for professional purposes.
Another study suggested that learners are using MOOCs to boost their employability, especially in developing countries.

Learners are choosing from a range of available MOOC options. This might include focusing just on specific weeks or topics from a number of MOOCs across various platforms. We expect to see a maturing of tools to curate open MOOC content.

From the employer perspective, a study published by the European Commission suggests that MOOCs can address skills shortages in web technology and web design by providing training in specific areas that traditional degrees cannot cover. The former UK universities ministers, David Willets, foresaw the scenario in which employers accept MOOCs as evidence of skills on a CV.

3. Adding value to courses on campus

The idea of MOOCs complementing rather than replacing traditional university education is reflected in both the recruitment strategies of some universities, and how learners respond to them. There are in-campus programmes that have a MOOC versions running alongside, such as the Southampton Web Science MOOC, with prospective students using the free online version to raise their profile, network with course tutors, and gain an interview for BA or MA entry.

This is especially the case when access to degrees is restricted, or when there is competition for funding. For example, the British Council and the University of Southampton offer an online MA in English Language Teaching. Learners completing the associated “Understanding Language” MOOC were offered a discount on the upcoming MA, and the number of applications to the university rose at least threefold as a result.

4. Making learning more engaging

Well-publicised low completion rates indicate that many MOOC learners have no specific desire or need to cover an entire course within its published timescale. However, research indicates that there are steps that lecturers can take to encourage more learner interaction and deeper engagement with MOOC material.

One recent study reported success with techniques such as reducing the length of videos, introducing an element of competition – known as “gamification” – and endorsing the sharing of experiences via social media. This approach was carried out in Australia’s Curtin University with an Astronomy MOOC in the Open2study platform, with positive outcomes reported.

An astronomy MOOC from Curtin University.

5. Opening up education access

The technical infrastructure and hardware behind MOOCS are improving, and more importantly the implications of cultural and economic diversity for MOOC learning are better understood.

In 2014, the Saudi Arabian government used the open source platform created by edX – the non-profit platform launched by Harvard and MIT – to launch its own MOOC portal, providing online classes tailored to disadvantaged groups. However, the need for tailoring of content and awareness of alternative navigation strategies relating to demographics are creating both challenges and opportunities, including reaching agreement on what adaptations need to be made for which cultural groups.

So, far from crashing and disappearing, MOOCs are acting as catalysts for change and are maturing into useful tools to complement and add value to more traditional learning experiences rather than replace them.