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Universities are still standing. The MOOC revolution that never happened.

MOOCs replace lectures

It is two years since Coursera began offering massive open online courses (MOOCs) that threatened the very existence of Universities and the increasingly expensive education they offered. It was really only a matter of time before bricks-and-mortar universities faced the same digital battle-to-the-death that has transformed other industries like newspapers and music. Universities faced a MOOC “tsunami” and “avalanche”.

Two years on however, the avalanche/tsunami/revolution never came and universities are not only still standing, they have, by-and-large, been remarkably unaffected by the free courses now offered by a couple of hundred universities around the world. Arguably MOOCs have spurred a renewed interest in using what is called a “blended learning” approach to university courses, offering students a mix of online and face-to-face tuition. But beyond this, one can argue that MOOCs have had limited impact on the day-to-day business of universities.

The logic of why MOOCs presented such a threat to the existing higher educational model was reasonably sound. Faced with an option of quality courses that were free, why would people continue to saddle themselves with, what in some cases is a lifetime of debt, to take courses from second or third-tier universities and colleges?

The problem with free

Well it turned out that free has consequences. The first is that the drop-out rate of MOOCs was amazingly high. In fact, when retention in MOOCs is measured by how many students watch videos each week or take any of the set quizzes, the drop-out rate is remarkably constant and results in something like 2 - 14% of students who initially enrolled finishing the course. In fact, on average, only 55% of people who enrolled actually watch the first video.

This attrition is remarkably constant across all MOOCs and has little to do with quality or any obvious forms of engagement of the students. It is simply a fact that frictionless entry into a course makes frictionless exit just as easy. There are no consequences for people not completing a course and so simply put, they don’t.

The problem with change

But actually, the major issue with why universities haven’t been affected by MOOCs is to do with a range of factors that are integral to the way universities work. Universities are not free enterprises in the same way as music companies and news media companies are privately owned companies. Universities are governed by legislation and quality requirements that restrict who can award a degree and how they have to go about ensuring that students achieve a particular standard in order to earn that degree. This has made any change to this model a matter for governments as well as universities and their customers. So far, although there has been enthusiasm shown by governments for the general principles of MOOCs, none, nor their proxy institutions have shown any interest in allowing anyone other than universities to grant degrees based on MOOCs. Even allowing credits for individual MOOCs to count towards a degree has had limited acceptance.

The problem with the business model

The original model of academics simply putting up recordings of powerpoints on their computer screens as a MOOC have rapidly disappeared. Harvard spends between $75,000 and $150,000 on each MOOC it produces. Even those universities that don’t directly spend this sort of money on production of MOOCs end up relying on academics and other staff to create the MOOCs in their spare time which represents a hidden cost. To date, Coursera’s attempts to charge for verified certificates of completion of MOOCs have not generated enough revenue to make a profit, let alone cover these costs.

Georgia Tech has teamed up with Udacity to create an inexpensive Masters degree programme in computer science but even here, they have had to limit the number of enrolled students to a few hundred and provide enough staff support to ensure that the students have some chance of completing. It is consequently hard to see how this will scale and make money.

The future of universities

Universities are not homogenous organisations that take a consistent approach to how they produce students with degrees. Each academic teaches in a largely unique way and students all approach their learning in an equally non-uniform manner. At the end of the day, we haven’t found any consistent way of getting around the fact that in order to learn, students are required to put in a great deal of effort and they can only be guided and supported in this endeavour. The motivations for students, especially young ones, to do this on their own without the incentive of obtaining a degree that means something substantial in economic and social terms, are simply not there.

If universities do eventually experience a revolution, it will not be because of MOOCs.