MOOCS: The Future of Higher Education?

MOOCS: The Future of Higher Education?

MOOCs are out there, and some look at them as the new educational tool for massive world transformation. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, wrote about MOOCs that “nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty” and “unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.” But MOOCs are controversial and can divide opinions, particularly when looking at the major problems associated with MOOCs: high dropout rates, lack of a financial model, credentialing and doubtful high academic standards. Even the person that has been acknowledged as the “founder” of the latest trends of MOOCs, Sebastian Thrun, has recently refrained from expressing his early enthusiasm.

MOOCs stand for Massive Open Online Courses and some consider them to be the most interesting and challenging transformation that is occurring in higher education in decades. So many things happened with MOOCs in 2013, that 2014 looks like its tipping point, as hundreds of thousands of highly motivated students around the world, that couldn´t access elite universities, have turned their hopes and attention to MOOCs, massively enrolling in the available courses as a way to access sophisticated skills and supposedly get better paid jobs.

MOOCs are considered to be the latest development of distance learning, that emerged by the end of nineteenth century in the form of correspondence courses that covered hundreds of practical job-oriented topics. Subsequence developments of distance learning were radio broadcasted courses where students read textbooks and listened to broadcast lectures while mailing in answers to tests. E-learning started more consistently during the 1990s with some lecturers teaching seminars over the Internet, using gopher and email. In 2003 Hello China launched what the UK Guardian newspaper called as a new media venture. Hello China was a free English language program that aimed to teach 4 million Chinese learners who were preparing for business degrees by radio, web and mobile phone. The course was open to all participants who could have access to radio and the internet and some consider it as the first MOOC.

But the term MOOC was coined in 2008 by lecturers Dave Cormier and Bryan Alexander in response to a course called Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (also known as CCK08), that was offered by Athabasca University and the National Research Council. Designed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes, CCK08 consisted of 25 tuition-paying students that were part of extended education, and then over 2200 online students from the general public who paid nothing. All course content was available through RSS feeds and online students could participate through collaborative tools, such as blog posts and forums of debate organized through Moodle and Second Life online platforms.

The first MOOCs were highly experimental and creative. They emerged out of a movement thriving to revolutionize education, called Open Educational Resources, that aimed to give free access to documents and media that were considered useful for teaching, learning, assessment and research purpose. Open Educational Resources aimed to thwart the increasing commodification of knowledge, and MOOCs were one of the possible ways to do so.

Illustration: Golden Cosmos

With the accelerated technological innovations of the last decade, MOOCs evolved considerably, particularly their interface design. In 2012, The New York Times dubbed 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC” and last year MOOCs suddenly bloomed explosively, considered as an attractive emerging industry with remarkable business opportunities. Various for-profit educational organizations were assembled, such as Udacity a company that came out of a free computer science classes course offered in 2011 through Stanford University. In January 2013, Udacity launched its first MOOCs-for-credit, in collaboration with San Jose University and a few months later, it would offer its first entirely MOOC-based Master’s Degree on Computer Science, a collaboration between Udacity, AT&T and the Georgia Institute costing much less than the usual fee. The program was cancelled after six months, but by the end of last year, Udacity had 300 000 students enrolled.

Coursera is also a company offering MOOCs. Founded by two computer science professors from Stanford University, Coursera offers courses in physics, engineering, humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, computer science, business etc. Coursera collaborates with universities to make some of their courses available online. Last December 2013, Coursera launched their official mobile app.

Another platform offering MOOCs courses is edX, founded by MIT and Harvard University, that hosts online university-level courses in a wide range of disciplines to a worldwide audience at no charge and to conduct research into learning. By November 2013, edX offered 94 courses from 29 institutions around the world. In September 2013, edX announced a partnership with Google to develop Open edX, an open source platform and Its purpose is to expand the availability of the platform and its learning tools to individuals and institutions around the world. Google is to work on the core platform development with edX partners, and together they aim to collaborate on research into how students learn and how technology can transform learning and teaching.

MOOCs definitely seem to be the “next big thing” as over the last few years, growing numbers of universities in Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia have announced partnerships with the large American MOOC providers, which yelded to various jokes such as that “the academia as we know it was “MOOC’d out.”

By the examples given, one can see how a great deal of venture capital money began to be invested in developing emerging online platforms that furnish MOOCs, and their degree of sophistication improved greatly. MOOCs deliver now highly complex interactive course content to the enrolled students, who can number in the hundreds to the tens of thousands. If until now MOOCs courses had depended on universities interested in investing and expanding the access to some courses given by their most popular lecturers, or exploring the possibilities of online teaching time, these new investors are now looking to figure out  a business model for MOOCs that will make them profitable, and everyday day new major company joins the run.

Due to the massive amount of students involved in MOOCs, it is increasingly important to “mine” the data captured about MOOCs, such as how, why and when millions of participants opt to sign up, interact with their material, submit their assignments, message each other, or quit the course, as well as what factors motivates them to complete. It seems urgent to properly assess these courses,  looking for evidence of its benefits and if they truly educate people or not, so MOOCs gain credibility within academia and currency with employers. There are doubts if the interactive online dynamic of a MOOC, and its open access philosophy can create some problems in keeping standards high.

Illustration: Claudio Munoz

Who can be benefited by MOOCs? A whole set of interrogations can be made here. Are MOOCs a strategy universities can use for enrolling fee-paying international students onto postgraduate courses,  by displaying their best programmes online? Do MOOCs truly offer a solution to students in developing countries,  lacking proper access to first world universities? Or are MOOCs mostly  used by people already employed, that aim to improve their professional knowledge ? And can people lacking qualifications  use Moocs as a way into higher education?

Recent surveys begin to deliver answers to these questions, suggesting that even though MOOCs may be popular to start off with, their completion rates are extremelly low. Research conducted by University of Pennsylvania in 2013, that collected nearly 35,000 responses from students enrolled in MOOCs from around the world that had completed at least one full lecture, discovered a striking portrait of whom is using MOOCs, that clearly contradicted their expectations: a large number of MOOCs students were already well-educated. They were predominately male and currently employed, and tended to view the course taken as a hobby more than as a way to get a college degree or a new job.

The conclusion is that taking advantage of the opportunities that MOOCs offer requires a certain set of conditions: sufficient schooling to be able to follow college-level material, consistent access to the Web, and a reliable electrical system. On the other hand, because of massive enrollments, MOOCs rely on instructional design that facilitates large-scale feedback and interaction.  New problems result. How do you facilitate meaningful debate in a class containing tens of thousands? How do you grade course work? Some instructional design approaches attempt to connect learners to each other to answer questions and/or collaborate on joint projects. An emerging trend in MOOCs is the use of nontraditional textbooks such as graphic novels that seem to be quite efficient to achieve knowledge retention. Some see MOOCs videos and other educational resources produced by the MOOC as the next form of the textbook. “MOOC is the new textbook” says David Finegold of Rutgers University.

Besides MOOCs, there are other related educational practices and courses being offered by alternative organizations such as Khan Academy, Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU), Udemy, and Course Hero. These tend to work outside the university system. Udemy allows teachers to sell online courses, with the course creators keeping 70-85% of the proceeds and retaining intellectual property rights.

The major questions now are to acknowledge what works in a MOOC learning environment, and what doesn’t. What could be the future for MOOCs? For example, could MOOCs be the beginning of a futuristic global degree, with students taking courses from across the world ?

Illustration: Leo Espinosa

If some opinian-makers tend to believe that MOOCs have the potential to overturn the barriers to college education for disadvantaged people worldwide, skeptics warn of the downsides to automated instruction. In any case, neither skeptics or utopian enthusiasts can rely yet on valuable data to support their claims. But something is certain: for such a utopian world educational transformation to happen, basic access to education and technology has to improve.

Universities are not special green places anymore. Actually, the utopian vision of the green campuses of the Universities, never truly corresponded to the reality of many of us, educated in community colleges or other universities scattered all over the world. Just as the nature of work has shifted, higher education has been moving from green campuses, where students attend packed auditoriums to listen to a lecturer speak, to the “green-screen” campuses of Higher Education for all, which means seating at home, looking at your laptop. And if your screen as your auditorium brings knowledge and better opportunities to you and to massive amounts of people on a global scale, why not considering and trying to improve MOOCs ?

As Mike Sharples said, the chair of Educational Technology which produced the 2012 Innovating Pedagogy report that predicted the rise of Moocs : “In South America, China, countries in Africa, there is a huge appetite for learning, and some of the world’s best courses are being offered online” adds Sharples. “If people are genuinely fascinated by learning, then why not? The real challenge is to allow those countries not just consume and study Moocs, but also to create them.”