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MOOCs and higher education: evolution or revolution?

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) burst into the public consciousness in 2012 after feverish press reports about elite US universities offering free courses, through the Internet, to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) course on Circuits and Electronics that had attracted 155,000 registrations was a typical example. Pundits proclaimed a revolution in higher education and numerous universities, and, fearful of being left behind, joined a rush to offer MOOCs.

Specialist organisations such as Coursera and edX provided the information technology (IT) platforms to support MOOCs, because managing electronic communication with hundreds of thousands of learners worldwide was beyond the IT capabilities of all but the largest open universities. Today MOOC platforms are available in countries across the world. The UK’s FutureLearn consortium, for example, has 80 partner universities and institutes, which offer hundreds of MOOCs to over 3 million people.

Four years after the MOOCs craze began, where are we today? MOOCs provide a good example of our tendency to overestimate the significance of innovations in the short term whilst underestimating their long-term impact. The early predictions of a revolution in higher education proved false, and the idea that MOOCs could be the answer to the capacity problems of universities in the developing world was especially silly. Nevertheless, MOOCs are a significant phenomenon. Over 4,000 MOOCs are available worldwide and register 35 million learners at any given time. As they have multiplied they have diversified, so that, as this cartoon implies, the meaning of every word in the acronym MOOC is now negotiable.

Although I deprecate wild assertions about the revolutionary impact of MOOCs, I am a regular MOOC learner myself, and have just registered for my 13th FutureLearn course. I much enjoy these courses, which are authoritative and well produced. I am also, however, a good illustration of why MOOCs have not sparked a revolution in higher learning. MOOCs are attractive to older people like me, who already have degrees and do not seek further qualifications, but who remain eager to acquire basic knowledge about an eclectic range of new topics. My own MOOCs have included: Writing Fiction, Challenging Wealth and Income Inequality, Childhood in the Digital Age, The Controversies of British Imperialism, Strategies for Successful Ageing, and Mindfulness.

The major role of MOOCs seems now to be evolving away from higher education. Instead they are becoming a major tool for development education in countries such as India, which is using MOOCs to improve the skills of millions of agricultural workers, and has created a nationwide assessment system to validate the knowledge that the learners have gained.

MOOCs are a significant phenomenon. Over 4,000 MOOCs are available worldwide and register 35 million learners at any given time.

So MOOCs themselves are not a revolution in higher education but they are having multiple knock-on effects in the way that it is offered. They have sparked a steady increase in the offering of all types of academic programmes online, stimulated trends towards shorter courses, and an expanded range of credentials.

With respect to online teaching, the offering of MOOCs by elite US institutions in 2012 suddenly made distance learning respectable. Although the many distance-teaching universities created worldwide on the model of the UK Open University from 1970 onwards gave access to higher learning to millions, they had little impact on the way that existing universities operated. Distance learning still suffered from the poor image of correspondence education. But once Harvard, MIT, and Stanford went online the established universities sat up and took notice. Online enrolments in regular programmes had been growing steadily since 2000 in a somewhat haphazard manner, but following the MOOCs frenzy in 2012 a survey in 2015 could declare that “online learning in higher education now mainstream.”

The wider impact of MOOCs on academic programmes and course formats has occurred as institutions try to address the two major weaknesses of MOOCs. The first weakness is that MOOCs do not provide the institutions offering them with a clear business model because they are offered free. The commonest ways of addressing this challenge are to use MOOCs as publicity for other courses that do charge fees and/or to offer certificates of participation. These documents sell surprisingly well despite lacking the credibility of the formal degree or diploma certificates that universities provide for their formal credit courses.

That is second weakness of MOOCs. They do not lead to formal credentials, which is why they are unattractive to regular undergraduate students. Early attempts to offer MOOCs to undergraduates in China flopped because the students were looking for marketable qualifications backed by their institutions.

The trends towards shorter courses and a greater variety of credentials are not solely due to MOOCs. For example, Open Badges, software that allows any organisation to certify the acquisition of skills and knowledge emerged at the same time as MOOCs. Nevertheless, the experience of offering MOOCs has undoubtedly made university teachers realise the value of shorter courses. Many have changed the way that they teach their regular courses as a result. This has made institutions more amenable to requests from employers for shorter courses related to workplace needs and credentials other than full degrees.

Featured image credit: Crowd by James Cridland. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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