A business case for MOOCs emerging?

Although the Guardian Future of Higher Education Summit touched on many themes throughout the day, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were mentioned throughout. One difficulty I had was that “MOOCs” and “online learning” were used interchangeably by a number of the speakers. This suggests that some believe online learning to be new. It isn’t – there have been good examples of online course delivery around for some time and many existing courses and modules now contain an online element. What is new with MOOCs is the openness and hence the potential scale of engagement.

So how do MOOCs fit into the HE landscape? The consensus was that, although they will be a disruptor, they will not be a threat to most traditional universities. But equally it was recognised that the global increase in demand for higher education cannot be met by more of the same – the traditional system is not scalable. David Willetts saw “online learning” as key to delivering early parts of degree courses with students, on completing the online introductory elements, then applying to university to complete their studies. He clearly saw the later stages of courses as those where face to face teaching and tuition can really add value. He may have a point – the aim of some first year modules is to bring all up to the same level and to introduce themes built on in subsequent years. How many face to face tutorials feature in such modules? I can see this working for UK universities, particularly those looking to build their overseas engagement – offer first year modules online, assess them in a way where identity can be verified and then offer enrolment to successful candidates to year 2 of courses either in overseas campuses or in the UK. But I suggest that this sort of engagement is unlikely to be entirely open in the way that MOOCs are intended. It is likely to be more controlled, will necessarily need to deliver an income to the institution in order to sustain it as a genuine pathway to completing a degree.

Steven Schwartz returned to the theme later in the day. MOOCs could replace commodity courses, he opined, so that the sector doesn’t have 130 versions of ‘Introduction to statistics for non-statisticians’ (or Stats 101 as it is colloquially known). This was recognised early in the shared services days as a potential saver. A feasibility study was carried out and reported that ‘although the rationale for sharing curriculum in HE is inescapable, particularly at level one, the obstacles to implementation are substantial’. The barriers include culture, the question of “what’s in it for me?” (both institutional and for individual academics), management of reputation (“will it be as good as what we can offer?”) and competition. I don’t see that those barriers have changed but I do believe that there is probably little difference between most of the offerings for such courses and so real potential for sharing. Whether MOOCs are the mechanism to deliver this is a moot point but if they start to encourage a real debate about pedagogy and how foundation modules can be delivered more effectively then it is possible that the uniform Stats101 may emerge. The challenges here are perhaps different to those with David Willetts’ proposition. If you are delivering commodity modules online then I would question whether this really is value for money if you are paying £9k fees. I’d suggest that if it is a one for one replacement then the answer is probably ‘no’. On the other hand, if I am getting more out of my first year so can explore more new areas in years two and three, then the answer may be ‘yes’. An alternative proposition is that authenticated completion of Stats101 online could be an additional entry criterion – is there the possibility that institutions might offer different options to those who have completed the elementary modules online ahead of the course starting?

There was a session that was entitled ‘online learning – passing fad or a major game changer?’ It was the wrong question in my view – online learning is well established and here to stay. As for MOOCs, we can only hypothesise – we just don’t have the evidence yet. However the discussion highlighted a number of points. Rajay Naik from the Open University noted that online learning needs to be positioned as an opportunity. It does. Too often it is enforced on academics (“you must put x% of your module online”) and what results is low quality online learning. If you can demonstrate that investment in online learning by an academic will lead to better engagements with students and perhaps contribution (by students) to the academic’s research then there is the opportunity for a double win. Academics will engage, they will challenge and be challenged by their undergraduates. This assumes mainstream teaching. MOOCs don’t currently fall into that category.

David Willetts noted that ‘online learning will be the biggest recruitment instrument universities have got’. Initially that may well be where MOOCs get positioned. As Naik observed “many have viewed our iTunesU content”. What he didn’t add is how many of those viewers have converted into registered students. That would be one side of the equation for the business case. The other side is the cost of producing the material and supporting the course. Quality material comes at a price and the content of the MOOC will need to be high quality in order to act as an effective marketing tool.

The conclusion from the day is that some applications for MOOCs beyond marketing are emerging. Although online learning isn’t new, the scale of MOOCs is innovative and gives them the potential to be disruptive. There are still some challenges remaining. Authenticated assessment is one but also, as Jeff Haywood pointed out, we have still a lot to learn about pedagogy online. However there are the first signs of a business case that will sustain the innovation starting to emerge.


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