It’s no exaggeration to say that MOOCs are the current buzz of the university sector. They may not have made it into the public consciousness yet, but they’re up for discussion at almost every major education conference or gathering these days.
MOOCs stands for Massive Open Online Courses. In essence, they’re simply another form of online education, but what makes them special is their sheer size: some MOOCs courses can have as many as a hundred thousand students actively involved at any one time. What also sets them apart, and perhaps goes some substantial way to explaining their rapid rise, is the endorsement they carry from some of the world’s most prestigious universities—Johns Hopkins, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, et cetera.
‘I think the majority of high-end providers will have a MOOCs position of some sort or other in the years ahead,’ says Professor Ed Byrne, the Vice Chancellor of Monash University in Melbourne.
Monash already offers more than 150 online courses, but it’s now also busy developing its own MOOCs program.
‘They are a terrific supplement to existing pathways of higher education learning, and I think they will definitely find a place in the pantheon of higher education, there's no doubt about that,’ adds Professor Byrne.
Daphne Koller, a computer science professor at Stanford University, helped pioneer the MOOCs phenomenon. She co-founded the leading platform called Coursera, one of the big three, along with rival start-ups edX and Udacity.
Dr Koller’s company now provides MOOCs to students across the globe, offering courses from more than 60 affiliated universities. Coursera has only been in operation for 12 months, but it already boasts more than three million students. Dr Koller talks about her platform as an almost evolutionary shift in education.
‘That's a remarkable growth rate,’ she says proudly. ‘It's faster than most internet start-ups… We were not expecting a sector that has been unchanged for 350 years to all of a sudden transform into embracing this new technology.'
'I expect that in 10 years students will not be taught in the same way that you and I were taught when we went to school,’ Dr Koller adds.
Not everybody is comfortable with that sort of soaring aspirational language, however. Monash University’s Professor Byrne says that while he and his institution are happy to embrace the MOOCs trend, he refuses to see the courses as a future replacement for traditional bricks and mortar-style learning.
‘Let's start with what MOOCs are,’ says Professor Byrne. ‘They are massive, they are aimed at many, many thousands of people. Some millions have enrolled in Coursera. (But) the completion rate is low, it's 10 per cent to 15 per cent. The capacity for individual tuition is very small or zero because a small number of professional support staff or academics cannot service 100,000 students in an individual way. They are not about accreditation at this stage; that may alter. They are certainly not about offering the totality and complexity of a major university degree.'
Other educators are not just sceptical, but highly suspicious of the MOOCs revolution. On the surface of it, Dr Ian Bogost sounds like the sort of academic you’d expect to champion online learning: he’s a world-renowned games-developer and a professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. But Dr Bogost argues MOOCs are little more than corporate marketing for private education providers, and much of the buzz surrounding them represents little more than technology anxiety—a general fear of falling behind.
‘We always need some kind of a trend in technology, and I would really encourage seeing MOOCs as a technology trend rather than an education trend,’ Dr Bogost argues. ‘It's one, if not the first, effort on the part of the current generation of Silicon Valley-style technocrats to move into education as an area of investment and development. And universities in general, especially the administrators at universities, see MOOCs as a thing that they have to engage with.’
Another noted educator expressing caution is Professor Jonathan Zittrain from Harvard Law School. Professor Zittrain, who also co-founded Harvard’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society, argues that MOOCs should only be adopted where they add to current teaching methods.
‘They need not be seen as competitors to them (traditional lectures) unless the classes are truly of a nature—because of the topic, because of the methodology—that they really don't need in-person gatherings to do anything,’ says Professor Zittrain. ‘I would think studying for the American bar exam where you're just trying to figure out a bunch of multiple choice questions, that's the kind of thing that might well suit itself to a MOOC and there shouldn't be any in-person classes. But a standard law school class bears very little relation to preparing for that exam, and instead is kind of having the students apprenticed to a set of skills. So for the humanities and for law, it may be harder to do a MOOC that is self-contained.’
Back in Melbourne, Professor Byrne suggests MOOCs may find their true calling as a replacement for rudimentary lectures at the very beginning of a student’s university experience.
‘I think MOOCs will contribute to the demise of the very large student attendance first-year lecture,' says Professor Byrne. ‘At the lowest level they are something like a textbook. Our students can use a textbook published by an academic from Oxford or Cambridge or wherever and that's totally expected. A MOOC produced elsewhere in the world can be used in that way and therefore can be recommended to students or indeed—perhaps a more major step—actually incorporated into a coursework provision. These are much more suitable for first-year modules.’
But Professor Byrne is quick to add that even at first year level MOOCs need to be matched with personal engagement between students and university staff.
‘In a major university a student still needs some exposure to tutors in a small group context, be that delivered electronically or be that delivered in person, as is more traditional,’ he says. ‘And it's not possible to deliver that with thousands of students in a single module. You know, not everything can be mechanised and ruled out in an automated way, there is still a need for an educated and intelligent tutor to interact with a bright, clever student on a more personal basis, and that, I think, will remain a key part of the university experience that the MOOCs, by definition because they are massive, will not be able to replicate.’
One of the central criticisms of MOOCs is that their application is largely limited to the hard sciences, or as Professor Zittrain has suggested, to courses where assessment is limited to a simple yes-no, or multiple choice equation.
But some proponents of the MOOCs approach—like Professor Al Filreis, who teaches Modern Poetry at the University of Pennsylvania—are convinced they can also be adapted for the humanities. He says he objected to the use of MOOCs in literature courses when first introduced to the Coursera platform by Dr Koller. But since then, and after experimenting with the technology, he's changed his mind, and now argues the strength of the MOOCs approach is its very scale. He believes MOOCs allow for far greater participation and can therefore open the door to a wider variety of inputs.
‘[I]t struck me that the MOOC which brings together thousands of people gives us an opportunity to hear hundreds, maybe even thousands, of different perspectives on a difficult poem,' Professor Filreis says. 'So, to take an example: Emily Dickinson is a very difficult American nineteenth-century poet. If you're standing in a classroom of 15 people or 30 people or even 90 people, you put it out there and you get a few different interpretations. When you put it out there among 36,000 people, you stand a chance actually of seeing new interpretations of the nineteenth-century poem. The wisdom of the crowd is one of the advantages in the humanities for the MOOC.’
Professor Filreis admits he has had to customise MOOCs to work for his students, including a heavy focus on the use of student discussion forums, with lectures in video format kept to a minimum. But interaction between competing student perspectives is not the only advantage of having so many people involved in a singular curriculum. Now he says even assessment is given over to the crowd.
‘Each student who has submitted an essay is randomly assigned four essays to write a peer review of,’ he explains. 'The peer review is based on a rubric that I and my colleagues write which describes at least some of what an ideal essay would discuss. So typically in a bricks and mortar standard traditional classroom a student will submit an essay and it will be read by one person. At a big university it might be the professor or a teaching assistant. In modern poetry, each person who submitted an essay received four formal peer reviews.’
It’s still too early, of course, to gauge exactly what lasting impact MOOCs will have on the tertiary education sector. Despite their rapid rise over the past few years they are still very much a work in progress. The high drop-out rate is difficult to ignore, and most still don't count towards an actual accredited degree. On the other hand, there are the long-term economic imperatives of universities and other tertiary institutions to take into account. Most universities, after all, are either private businesses or operate like private corporations even when they’re partially government funded. Georgia Institute of Technology's Dr Bogost says there’s no question that MOOCs will be used by tertiary institutions as a means of saving money.
‘We've heard a lot of discussion about MOOCs as a way of cutting costs for students, but it's also a way of taking the already precarious labour situation in universities, especially among untenured faculty and adjunct and temporary educators who are already barely paid a living wage to teach, and using that as an excuse to make even more cuts,’ he warns. ‘A further concern is that those cuts, whether they benefit students or not, are moving the educational sector from a public good—even among private institutions we can still talk about education as a public good, as an entity outside of commerce and government—and moving that into the private sector.’
There are also questions unanswered about the economic goals of the various MOOCs providers like Coursera and Udacity. Dr Koller, from Coursera, says her organisation is committed to the goal of providing open, free education, but she also readily admits that Coursera is seeking to monetise its operations. Says Dr Koller, ‘We believe that it's possible to keep access to content free, that is something that we are committed to doing, while at the same time still provide enough premium services, so to speak, that users will choose to pay. Credentialing is one such product. I mean, it doesn't involve charging students for knowledge but it allows students to get tangible benefits for their learning, such as a credential that they can take to an employer and perhaps get a better, higher paying job. They pay for that, a modest amount, and it's an add-on that is entirely optional and has a tangible benefit to the student. That is only one of several revenue streams that we are developing.’
For his part, Dr Bogost remains sceptical: ‘It sounds very good to talk about global education, to talk about free education. Anyone who has been alive over the past 10 or 15 or 20 years has seen precisely how the Silicon Valley investment model works. You start up a company, it's very speculative, it's funded to be sold or to go public, it's funded to do so with five to ten times return to its investors, if not more, and it's funded to do so in the shortest time possible while expending the smallest number of resources. So when we see these educational organisations providing MOOCs structured as for-profit start-ups, we do have to keep our wits about us and realise that they are going to have to make good on those investment promises at some point. And that point will come sooner than we think.’