MOOCs – what are they and what’s the future for them?

• 5 min read

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have their detractors and their skeptics; while those offering MOOCs are wondering how to make money from the intellectual property that comprises these courses. Nonetheless, despite being relative newcomers to the online learning scene, MOOCs have already shown their potential to disrupt the academic and corporate learning worlds — in terms of price, technology and even pedagogy.

There’s a great deal to be said in favor of MOOCs – not least that they provide greater access to learning and a wider range of knowledge from different cultures and countries – but technology isn’t beneficial merely because it’s there. Digital-based learning activities can be inauthentic and not relate well to everyday uses. Moreover, you can now get lots of digital learning materials for free – and not exclusively from MOOCs.

Furthermore, research from the MOOC provider, Coursera, has revealed that some 85% of their MOOC users have degrees. This suggests that MOOC students tend to be drawn from the already privileged in society. Those signing up for MOOCs tend to be confident, top achievers – not the poor, and certainly not those who’re unable, for whatever reason, to access the internet.

These were some of the issues that we addressed in a webinar organized by us at the end of last year with four leading industry experts:

  • John Leh, CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning.
  • Dr Mike Orey, Associate Professor at the University of Georgia.
  • Aaron Silvers, designer, technologist and strategist responsible for helping to bring massively adopted learning technologies into organizations around the world, notably SCORM and xAPI.
  • Erica LeBlanc, the Operations Development Manager for the IP and science business at Thomson Reuters.

In that webinar they considered ten key questions about MOOCs, and in this post we look at the first two questions presented in that webinar (if you’d like to view the webinar please email us!):

Q1: What’s a MOOC?

Mike Orey explained that MOOCs stands for massively open online courses. Focusing on the first two of these words, he said that ‘open’ means that they’re free to learners – and asked, “So what does that mean for companies that want to make a profit?”

He said that most MOOCs involve watching some sort of a video – sometimes a long video. Students take a multiple choice test and discuss things with other students in a largely unproctored discussion forum. In his view, it’s not really a conversation and it’s really not relationship building. 

He pointed out that the first MOOC attracted some 100,000 students but only 1000 or so completed the course. Today, you see people calling things MOOCs that have between 100 and 300 students. As the ‘M’ becomes smaller, you’re left with the ‘O’ (online) and the ‘C’ (courses), he said. ‘Online courses’ means e-learning – and when it comes to creating highly interactive e-learning experiences on a smaller scale, the key to effectiveness is less about technology and more about how you form relationships between teachers and students – and among students.

John Leh said that the original idea of MOOCs was that university professors would capture their live course content over a semester and then put it online for free – allowing anybody in the world with access to the internet to consume this content. Today, MOOCs tend to refer to a collection of individual courses from one source, such as a university. MOOCs can also be defined as the learning management system (LMS) platform that allows people or organizations to create, host and deploy content. So there’s a variety of evolving definitions of MOOCs, he said.

He stated that there are now for-profit and non-profit MOOCs. Examples include Udacity or Coursera (for-profits) and university MOOCs such as edX (non-profits). 

Furthermore, since MOOCs come from academia, they’re often categorized by their instructional approach. A video-based MOOC with online grading is known as a broadcast MOOC. A MOOC with group grading and which focuses on a collaborative experience where learners share with each other – via social learning for example – is referred to as a connectivist MOOC. 

Q2: What’s the future for MOOCs?

Erica LeBlanc believes that a sustainable business model for MOOCS involves them partnering with businesses to offer their platform either as an internal service for employee development or as a customized MOOC that has material related to the product or service of the businesses.

In Aaron Silvers’ view, MOOCs provide a way to sell academic text and reference materials to ‘non-traditional students’. They also provide an ancillary market for the kinds of materials that universities need to sell in order to provide the student experience. However, the term MOOC may be misapplied in the corporate world – since, there, it’s neither ‘massive’ nor ‘open’.

John commented: “Free is tough to sustain – and something has to give in the process. That could be the quality of the individual courses. From a corporate, academic and an e-learning standpoint, just watching a video for an hour of somebody speaking in front of a classroom is extremely dull. Yet, to do it better requires time, money and effort – and, to get it up to the standards that we’re used to, costs money to buy the software to create and then host it. 

“If, potentially, you have hundreds of thousands of learners, you’ve got to have an environment that can support that type of traffic. That costs money. So, whether they’re for profit or not-for-profit, MOOCs aren’t driven to generate revenue because, otherwise, they’re a complete cost center – and that’s unsustainable in the long-term. The easiest way is this freemium approach.

“Currently, you don’t get college credit for attending a MOOC class,” John added. “You get to attend it. You get to learn the knowledge, and you can take an assessment – which can get you a certificate once you’ve completed it. However, the value of this certificate is debatable – and you don’t get the college credits. It’s not the same as actually going to Harvard. So MOOCs are offering this freemium approach where the content is free but, then, something is paid for. Currently that’s mainly at the certificate level but I predict that, one day, you’ll be able to take a MOOC online and obtain college credit. That will be when MOOCs go more mainstream.” 

Mike pointed out that a university is a business in the sense that it’s selling its product. He continued: “MOOCs are giving people a free trial of the experience of taking a university class and, at the end, you can get the continuing education credits for a small fee. Some smaller universities are now offering MOOC students the opportunity to get college credits but, mostly, they’re using these MOOCs to attract students to come to the university full-time and pay full tuition fees.”