Are we already entering a post-MOOC era?

The introduction of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) a couple of years ago prompted a heady mixture of excitement, panic, and scepticism. MOOCs simultaneously promised:

  • To open up education to millions across the world who, for either geographical or financial reasons, would never have been able to access it otherwise;
  • To be incredibly disruptive – for professors, bricks-and-mortar campuses, and revenue streams;
  • To be very limited in scope, with no clear business or monetisation plan behind them, no credits attached to courses or degrees, and no sense of how a free, non-credited achievement would stack up in the real world of work.

Since then, a lot has happened. Today’s ICEF Monitor article will look at the current stage of MOOCs as well as the new offshoots they have spawned: SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) and SOOCs (Selective Open Online Courses).

According to some experts, these smaller, more selective programme models may be more than an alternative to MOOCs; they may be the more sustainable and engaging forms of online learning in a “post-MOOC” era.

MOOCs felt a backlash for much of the year

Since the first MOOCs began being offered, scepticism about their business model, or lack thereof, and sustainability has been rampant. A report released this past summer from the UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, The maturing of the MOOC: literature review of massive open online courses and other forms of online distance learning (ODL), noted:

“The burning issue in the MOOCosphere is the search for business models – and all the associated sub-issues of scale, sustainability, monetisation, accreditation for MOOC learning and openness…”

The doubt was fuelled by the likes of a much-cited statistic suggesting that many MOOCs have an average completion rate as low as 7%. As Time Magazine notes, “Advocates say that’s because there are no admissions requirements and the courses are free; they compare it to borrowing a book from the library and browsing it casually or returning it unread.”

MOOC have also weathered critiques along the following themes:

  • MOOC proponents’ altruistic claim of “educating the world” is a misnomer: MOOCs are really about trying to open a world market, with students seen as statistics more than individual learners;
  • MOOCs are an easy opportunity to cut labour costs by firing existing faculty members and/or hiring poorly trained but cheap course administrators;
  • They are the opposite of customised and do not factor in the location or cultural context of students.

More moderately, there seemed to be an emerging sense this year that perhaps MOOCs’ value might simply end up being their function as a “recruitment vehicle” for credit-bearing courses – a way to have students try out an educational brand and then sign on for the real thing at a proper campus.

But they proliferated, unabated, and evolved

Despite sustained critique and the occasional public embarrassment (e.g., San Jose State University philosophers’ open letter to Harvard’s Michael Sandel explaining why they would not support the use of his famous class, Justice, in an online edX format), MOOCs kept on growing this year and continue to generate huge enrolments around the world.

The initial big three MOOC platforms – Coursera, edX, and Udacity – have now attracted millions of learners worldwide with courses from a number of elite partner institutions, such as Harvard and MIT. And this year, new MOOC platforms have entered the fray, including:

  • UK-based FutureLearn, which registered 20,000 students in its first 24 hours of admission;
  • Australia’s Open2Study, which recorded 100,000 enrolments in just over its first six months of operations this year;
  • China’s Tsinghua University’s XuetangX.com, which includes foreign courses despite some political nervousness about foreign ideas being “imported.”

Most importantly, experimentation around MOOCs began to yield positive results, as well as variation, hybrids, and nuance. Online education developers began to distinguish more clearly between online platforms (a technological foundation) and content (which could be tailored for various purposes, audiences, and goals). This year, three of the most important developments in the MOOC arena have been the ideas that:

  • Online content may often complement, not replace, traditional teaching methods and professors;
  • Online platforms facilitate more models than just “massive open” ones;
  • Online courses can be priced variously according to the content, service, and accreditation they deliver.

We’ll now elaborate on each development.

Online content as a complement, not replacement

In some recent iterations of MOOCs, online lectures, often via video, are assigned as homework, a la “flipped classroom” model; they then form the basis of professor-led discussion on campus.

Slate notes that, “In some cases the instructors also use some MOOC-style online assessments or even automated grading features … but in general they’re free to tailor the curriculum, pace, and grading system to their own liking and their own students’ needs.”

Early reports show the MOOC-enabled flipped classroom to be resulting in better pass rates on tough courses – some positive, concrete performance data MOOC proponents have been previously lacking.

In addition, this autumn Coursera announced a new partnership with the US government to create “learning hubs” around the world where students can go to get Internet access to free courses supplemented by weekly in-person class discussions with local teachers or facilitators. This not only solves a problem of access to the Internet in some countries, but also leverages a Coursera pilot programme in Bolivia, South Korea, and Indonesia that showed that facilitated discussions are a key factor in student success with MOOCs. In the programme, 40% of students in classes that met for discussion once a week completed the MOOC, compared with only 10% of those who worked exclusively online.

New models with big potential: SPOCs and SOOCs

SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) or SOOCs (Selective Open Online Courses) take the online platform of MOOCs but then change the “Massive” and/or “Open” characteristics to something else completely. Jim Shimabukuro, editor of Educational Technology and Change online journal helps to define SPOCs and SOOCs:

“SPOCs are MOOCs with fixed enrolments. However, beyond this general characteristic, there are two distinct types: private [SPOCs] and selective [SOOCs – Shimabukuro’s term]. The former are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable from traditional online courses. The real innovation is in the latter – selective. Anyone can apply, but acceptance is selective to limit enrolment.”

Shimabukuro believes SPOCs are the real future, not MOOCs, explaining:

“The selection factor in SOOCs is a game changer. Selectivity addresses three critical problems that have plagued MOOCs from day one: low levels of active participation, low retention rates, and variable student backgrounds. By limiting enrolment to selected students, SOOCs have the potential to become serious and effective online learning platforms that retain the MOOC’s magic of massive, open, and online.”

In addition, SPOCs and SOOCs – because they are smaller, and sometimes because they are private – have much more potential to be customised to various student profiles or circumstances. For example, Colorado State University-Global (CSU-Global), the only independent 100% online, fully accredited public university in the US, offers the following types of services to different audience groups, at different price points:

  • A leadership training certificate programme (good for university credit) customised for a multinational construction company with managers and leaders in remote sites.
  • Access for a community organisation to the CSU-Global library of leadership topics, “such as best practices in virtual communication or building teams.”
  • The use of CSU-Global curriculum for an international university in its degree programmes, with “courses hosted and taught by CSU-Global faculty.”

The examples suggest that CSU-Global (and others that will follow their lead) can take a core of expertise and mix and match it in endless combinations to reach various audience groups and to derive revenue in multiple ways.

Harvard University Professor Robert Lue, who chairs the committee that runs Harvard’s online experiments under the banner of HarvardX, says that the smaller class sizes inherent in SPOCs allow “much more rigorous assessment and greater validation of identity and that will be more closely tied to what kind of certification might be possible.” He further cautions, “Institutions that sit back and watch … may be in trouble.”

MOOCs at various price points for different types of students

In 2014, Georgia Institute of Technology will offer a master’s degree in computer science via MOOCs for US $6,600 – far less than the US $45,000 on-campus price. The New York Times calls this “a first for an elite institution.” There will be an option to study MOOC-style courses from the degree for free, but without the accreditation or support features provided to students who must first qualify and then pay for the formal degree. The New York Times elaborates:

“The courses will be online and free for those not seeking a degree; those in the degree programme will take proctored exams and have access to tutoring, online office hours and other support services. Students who cannot meet the programme’s stringent admission standards may be admitted provisionally and allowed to transfer in if they do well in their first two courses. And students who complete only a few courses would get a certificate.”

Have MOOCs grown up so much that we are now… post-MOOC?

As this post makes clear, MOOCs have not only proliferated in their current massive, open form, they have also evolved into different, online-enabled models of delivering education. Talking to the BBC’s Sean Coughlan, Harvard’s Professor Lue asserts:

“The MOOC represents just the first version of what we can do with online education. And this first version has now been overtaken. We’re already in a post-MOOC era.”

As promising as this may be, however, Lue reminds us that there are still questions that remain unresolved related to the continuing move toward online-enabled learning. Specifically related to how the university campus fits in, he wonders, “What is it that a student gets out of being on campus and being in the classroom?”

Coughlan picks up where Lue leaves off, asking,

“If students on campus prefer learning online, what does it mean for the funding model for universities? What happens if a recorded online lecture is preferable to a mediocre live talk? How do universities show their ‘added value’?”

The chips, it seems, are still falling into place. No one knows exactly where they will land, and so higher education stakeholders continue to watch, experiment, and adapt to a future where an expanding menu of online learning options is ever more readily available.



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