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MOOCs and the battle to open up higher education

Foundation essay: This article on the rise of massive open online courses by Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at The Open University, is part of a series marking the launch of The Conversation…

MOOCs aren’t the answer to all higher education’s questions. Kanaka Menehune

Foundation essay: This article on the rise of massive open online courses by Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at The Open University, is part of a series marking the launch of The Conversation in the UK. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.

It seems that barely a week goes by without some pronouncement that MOOCs - massive open online courses - will revolutionise higher education. In many ways the interest in MOOCs is really a reaction to the crisis in higher education funding. As more debt is transferred to students, and job prospects become more difficult, the argument is that we need to find cheaper ways to educate people.

But both new entrants to the market and the old guard of universities might be better off if we gave up on the idea that MOOCs will replace university courses as we know them and sought to offer them a place in the existing system that suits all sides.

The business model for MOOCs is still vague. It might be selling accreditation to the few students who want an official document, it might be offering data services to employers. MOOCs provider Coursera, for example, recently announced plans to work with campus universities in the US to offer online content. This begins to make the company look less like a course provider and more like a publisher or elearning platform service.

Don’t believe the hype

There is a tendency to overstate the potential of MOOCs. Sebastian Thrun who led the large Stanford course has suggested that there will only be ten providers of education in the future. Similarly, writer and teacher Clay Shirky has argued that MOOCs are to higher education as the MP3 was to the music industry - they are the internet package that will revolutionise the sector.

There is an appealing simplicity to this narrative, but it fails to stand up to closer inspection. Education differs from the music industry in some very substantial ways. For a start, it is not based around a standard piece of content. Education can be viewed as a bundle, comprising elements such as the content itself, accreditation, support, quality assurance, and so on. Unbundling these elements is not easy.

In order to be free, the one element MOOCs can’t offer is human support. This is by far the most costly element in any course. The costs of production are fixed and can be recouped over time, but support (in terms of tutors, helpdesk, pastoral support) are variable and are required for every presentation.

This human support is replaced by two main elements in MOOCs – peer support and automated assessment. Both of these can work very well, and the automated assessment seen in many of the Coursera type MOOCs has become very sophisticated.

If, as some of their supporters hope, MOOCs were to replace the higher education model that we know, then they would be required to take on many of the functions provided by the human beings that are on hand for students on university campuses. For example dealing with student appeals or offering support for learners who are struggling. These elements inevitably cost money and so the free model would soon be under strain.

Massive, open and coming your way. giulia forsythe

The evidence coming from MOOCs also shows that completion rates are notoriously low, averaging around 10%. Arguably, completion rates are not a valid metric for MOOCs – as learners haven’t paid any money to study, they often pick elements they like and finish when they feel they have had enough. Course completion is not a goal for many learners. But even so, a 10% completion rate does suggest that many learners are either struggling with the MOOC format or not managing to persist when the learning, as it always does, gets tough.

MOOCs do have the potential to address many issues in global higher education. They can help sate the learning demands of the many developing countries that have a rapidly expanding need for universities. They can also help meet the needs of leisure learners, those who want to trial study, or perform education and outreach functions for charities, museums and professional bodies.

But again, the evidence so far is that MOOCs are not delivering on the hype that posits them as a vehicle for opening up higher education to the masses. Successful MOOC learners tend to be people with a good amount of prior learning experience. If you’ve already learned how to be an effective learner, then MOOCs work for you.

How it could work

What may be more realistic is a hybrid model in which MOOCs are complementary to higher education and not in competition with it. Lecturers are already finding that many campus-based students are also studying MOOCs in addition to their formal studies. This could be extended to universities formally accrediting certain MOOCs, thus expanding their curriculum.

Similarly, the length of a degree could be shortened by combining one-year MOOC study with formal education, thus ameliorating some of the funding issues. Universities might even decide to collaborate around common subjects to produce shared MOOCs.

There is also some evidence that MOOCs can be effective as marketing tools, bringing students into formal study. This allows students to try out both the subject area and the demands of studying. If they like what they see, they can go on to enrol for a full course. There is traditionally a large step into formal education, committing to a three or four year undergraduate programme is a significant filter that excludes many people. MOOCs have the potential to act as a stepping stone for those who are less certain about entering into formal learning.

The conundrum for universities

So far, there has been a tendency to view MOOCs as a Silicon Valley-style intervention into higher education. Education is broken and MOOCs are the solution. But in positioning outsiders such as the Khan Academy as the saviours of education, this narrative ignores the fact that MOOCs originally came out of universities themselves. As such, they form part of the wider movement towards openness that has been prompted by the rise of digital technologies.

Many commercial MOOC providers are not open in the sense that open education would recognise. The course materials are not openly licensed (for instance under Creative Commons licences) so cannot be reused. It is the companies that own the data and the content. There is a similar battle around the term “open” taking place in research, where academics are taking on private-sector publishers to get their work out from behind paywalls. This and the MOOC debate can be seen as proxies for a larger battle around the nature of higher education itself.

For universities there is a conflict. They want to be involved in MOOCs, but can’t afford to undercut their model and they also know that in order to meet the needs of a broader population, MOOCs won’t provide all the solutions. Nevertheless, they are under pressure to respond to the increased interest in MOOCs. The Open University responded to this by setting up FutureLearn and partnering with other UK universities, with the intention of highlighting better pedagogic practice and providing a UK based response to the US-centric MOOC market.

The best response to MOOCs will be to provide flexibility in the curriculum, and to explore the ways that they can complement current provision. The worst response will be to dismiss them at this crucial stage.

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