Part 1: MOOC development continues to pick up speed

The topic of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) has been extensively covered in various media both great and small, however it’s a technology – indeed an entire educational and political landscape – that is constantly evolving.

In response to this phenomenon, ICEF Monitor opens a two-part article on the current state of MOOCs. Today’s instalment will get you caught up on latest MOOC rumblings in the US and review the MOOC trend as a whole, and the second part will look at developments in MOOCs internationally, with a focus on countries where the technology is beginning to flourish.

Go ahead, MOOC my day

Online education in the form of MOOCs has boomed with platforms such as Coursera continuing to embrace new partners and investors seemingly month after month.

The most recent news, however, is that despite their differences (such as opposite sides of the nonprofit/for-profit divide and unique revenue models), Coursera and edX are relaxing their university exclusivity clauses, giving university partners more choice in terms of collaboration.

Coursera (whose total number of universities in its network has reached 62) now boasts 3.2 million registered users from approximately 200 countries. There are other platforms such as Udacity, which has around 112,000 active students and instructors, along with 739,000 total registrants, and the not-for-profit company edX has 675,000 users. In addition, Google and Pearson have entered the MOOC arena.

Why MOOCs are booming

A perfect storm of factors is spurring MOOC advancement:

  • A large segment of MOOC consumers are based in the US, where college fees have risen astronomically in recent years and no longer parallel a rise in employment earnings.
  • The legislatures of cash strapped US states see MOOCs as a way to lower costs for public higher education sectors.
  • While MOOCs are largely used by consumers in the English-speaking West, they have always been seen as a way to reach members of the international community who are educationally under-served.
  • Universities cannot possibly meet rising global demand for education by building thousands of new campuses, which makes MOOCs an attractive alternative.
  • The rapid innovation in online technology naturally collides with the world of education.
  • Students are increasingly demanding the use of more technology in education, and MOOCs fit that bill perfectly.

What’s the password?

When one thinks of MOOCs the words ‘all-access’ usually come to mind, and while this may be true for students, it isn’t for all universities. Inside Higher Ed reported on Coursera’s strict code to “only offer classes from elite institutions – the members of the Association of American Universities or ‘top five’ universities in countries outside of North America – unless Coursera’s advisory board agrees to waive the requirement.”

And as we reported in last year’s article “Changing landscape for online education challenges for-profit providers,” there are looming negative effects for smaller colleges that are left out of emerging high-reputation online networks. Institutions that are unable to join such networks, or fail to carve out an independent niche, are likely to experience credit stress driven by declining student demand.

The question for institutions and educational recruiters remains whether MOOCs will push students into core university programmes or draw them away. Many in higher education feel MOOCs are not a threat for two main reasons:

  • although some campuses use them as part of a blended learning model, pure MOOCs don’t offer the on-campus, extracurricular, real immersion experience that studying at a school in person does;
  • most MOOCs don’t offer course credit, but this is changing… and changing quickly.

As we also reported last year, the new Semester Online consortium of ten American top-tier universities will offer fully online, credit-bearing undergraduate courses in autumn 2013 through a partnership with 2U, a company that facilitates online learning. (Editor’s Note: It was just announced that while Duke will remain connected to Coursera, it has backed out of Semester Online, bringing the university count down to nine).

Furthermore, five classes (in STEM subjects) from Coursera now offer the possibility of credit, including two from Duke University, one from the University of Pennsylvania, and two from the University of California, Irvine. Similarly, Udacity offers five courses that can be eligible for college credit.

Some educators do see MOOCS as “alternative pathways to credit,” and a way to vet college-ready students, while others assure us that they are “not going to be a replacement for any of our classes, [but rather] it’s going to be a brush up.”

And where some MOOC platforms might be sticking to their inner circles, others are extending a warm welcome, such as the Khan Academy whose founder told the American Association of Community Colleges convention attendees, “We’d love to work with any of you.”

California and Florida at the credit forefront

The above online credit-bearing courses represent a mere academic trickle, but some lawmakers want to open the floodgates.

In California a plan known as Senate Bill 520 would require the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to grant credit for certain online courses. California’s public higher education system has had difficulty meeting demand; its community colleges have turned away about 500,000 students during it recent budget woes.

Bill 520 would apply only to introductory courses, which are often overbooked, but would also controversially grant credit for courses taught by providers outside California’s tertiary sector. Its main advocate Darrell Steinberg, who is President pro Tempore of the California State Senate, described it as a “partnership with technology to break the bottleneck that’s preventing students from completing their coursework.”

Also, earlier this year in Florida, a similar bill was introduced in the state legislature that would compel public colleges and universities to award credit for work done by students in online programmes unaffiliated with their colleges. Furthermore, last week the state signed a bill into law that recognises full-time online education (previously only available to K-12 in the state) at the University of Florida. House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican who has long been a proponent of virtual learning in public schools, stated:

“This bill transforms education in Florida… [Florida] will be home to the first fully accredited, online public research university institute in the nation. These bold higher education reforms will help increase Florida’s global competitiveness and ensure our students have meaningful opportunities after high school.”

Giving credit where credit is due?

Credit-bearing MOOCs may possess political momentum, but the format still has many questions surrounding drop-out rate and potential cheating. As to the first concern, many MOOC advocates believe that at this early stage most registrants have no intention of completing the courses – they’re simply trying out the technology. As to the second apprehension, new technology such as keystroke biometrics and new business opportunities abound with online monitoring companies such as ProctorU (which has signed an agreement with Coursera) stepping in with video observation and hi-tech keystroke analysis they say can certify honest results.

If credit-bearing MOOCs were to proliferate, they would greatly impact international recruitment, as their availability would change students’ expectations and opportunities. If universities en masse begin accepting MOOCs as transfer courses, international students would suddenly have an array of attractive options for structuring their educations, such as doing a year or two of basic learning online before finishing their degrees in person.

Another partial MOOC model would see students using the platform to complete non-core requirements. At thousands of dollars a credit, a sociology class begins to look excessively expensive to an engineering major. But allowing such requirements to be completed via MOOC could save students considerable sums.

MOOC money

These changes haven’t been warmly embraced by all educators, but with many universities already adopting MOOCs as part of a blended learning model, they are here to stay. Similarly, credit-bearing MOOCs are certain to expand. In both cases, that expansion is certain to take place globally.

And the model is likely to gain even more momentum as potential monetisation looms.

Coursera earned US $220,000 in the first quarter after it started charging for verified completion certificates under a programme called Signature Track, and also earns cash from Amazon.com if course enrolees buy books recommended by professors.

Take a test drive

One thing MOOCs seem certain to do is bring about a re-imagining of educational techniques.

MOOCs are user-centric. While video segments double as physical lectures, and instructors can be available for one on one sit-downs (one student who was interviewed on National Public Radio described entering a lottery to have an exclusive Google hangout with his genetics professor during virtual office hours), there is greater interaction with other students via discussion boards, messaging, or Twitter. Coursework is typically graded by other students, but new software is appearing all the time to automate grading, such as this one from edX.

If you have never seen a MOOC or had a look at some of the diverse offerings on the platform, below is list of several popular MOOCs offered through various universities. Since visual content for upcoming courses is not available, the links below lead to YouTube video segments from courses that have already ended:

For a look at future MOOCs, a list of dozens of upcoming 2013 courses sorted by month is available on the website openculture.com.

Continue our MOOC tour and move on to the second half of this two-part overview, where ICEF Monitor examines the development of MOOCs in Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa.



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