Remodeling MOOCs in 2014

Since the first wave of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) around 2012, hypotheses about their impact have abounded, and have changed over time. So too have emotions about the courses evolved (from excitement to disenchantment or even suspicion) to where we may be now: a calmer state where the both the hype and counter-hype have worn off. Now, organisations are using the essence of MOOCs – an online, adaptable, customisable, and accessible platform – to achieve diverse educational outcomes and business models.

Today’s MOOCs:

  • Are being adopted and are provided by a range of organisations with different agendas in markets around the world;
  • Are being offered for free and/or for a fee, depending on the provider and the type of course and student;
  • Are being taken by students wanting to:
    – Simply learn more, or to continue to broaden their education
    – Achieve credits toward a degree (available for some MOOCs)
    – Participate in programmes and earn credentials to show to prospective employers;
  • Are being used not only as standalone courses but also as supplements or even replacements for textbooks.

Today’s post expands on our earlier coverage to explore the current state of play for MOOCs’ evolution and to highlight some of the myriad ways MOOCs are being deployed around the world.

More than just courses

A few years in, it has become clear that the initial promise of open online courses to provide free education to anyone wanting it (anywhere in the world) is certainly not their only potential.

This revelation – of potential beyond the initial expectation – came slowly and painfully. For much of 2013, there was a lot made of research showing that while MOOCs may attract huge numbers of users, these users very frequently drop out. In an earlier post, we cited a study showing that of those who registered in a particular UK MOOC, only half actually began in it and of those who did begin, only roughly 30% were still active in Week 5.

More recently, the University of Texas at Austin found that completion rates for its first four massive open online courses ranged from about 1% to 13%. Those who stayed the course were revealed to be those who already had significant educational backgrounds and achievement.

Initially such research seemed to some to suggest that the MOOC experiment might be coming to an end almost as soon as it had begun. But then further reflection and experimentation led to a view that completion rates were not the most important factor in measuring success. Writing in The Atlantic, researchers Justin Reich and Andrew Ho explain this position:

“Our data show that many who register for HarvardX courses are engaging substantially in courses without earning a certificate. In these courses, “dropping out” is not a breach of expectations but the natural result of an open, free, and asynchronous registration process, where students get just as much as they wish out of a course and registering for a course does not imply a commitment to completing it.”

An extension of this is the idea that MOOCs might be better thought of as a delivery method for information rather than as discrete courses requiring completion to be declared useful and valid.

Thought of this way, MOOCs cease to be the kind of disruptive threat they were feared to be at their outset, which once made some universities and professors very nervous.

For example, in an interview with the New York Times, Professor Michael Webber, who teaches the University of Texas at Austin’s most popular MOOC, “Energy 101” commented:

“I think the hype was that MOOCs are going to replace colleges, and then there was that fizzle because they weren’t there yet. But they haven’t gone away, and they aren’t going to go away, because they do have the potential to replace textbooks.”

Professor Webber’s course illustrates the point: the videos and multimedia elements as well as the several hundred pages of text for “Energy 101” are available for download through an interactive application. This application:

  • Is expected to soon include interactive assessment capabilities not available in either textbooks or the online course;
  • Can be updated at any time;
  • Costs much less than a new textbook ($50);
  • Returns the full cost right back to the institution (as opposed to a publisher).

MOOCs become regionally and culturally relevant

MOOCs originated in the US – through such platforms as Udacity, EdX, Coursera – and other Western countries (e.g., Finland’s Eliademy, Britain’s FutureLearn, German’s iversity), though they were expressly designed to be global and to allow greater opportunities to the poorest or those with the least access to education. This Western orientation made some academics and educational experts in other parts of the world resistant to their potential; as an article in Fast Company notes, MOOCs were seen as:

“Yet another blunt cultural export of the West, shoehorning ill-fitted course materials into societies where education access was clearly in high demand, while not really helping them develop or even undermining their homegrown education infrastructure.”

Now, in 2014, this sort of criticism is no longer as prevalent, since different institutions and other groups around the world are using MOOC platforms to deliver courses to local or regional students. For example:

  • EdX courses are now offered by universities in 20 countries, including India, Mexico, France, and Hong Kong.
  • 12 Chinese institutions have now launched their own platform, XuetangX, with some 300,000 users already. XuetangX is based on EdX’s open-source codebase.
  • Again using EdX’s open-source codebase, Jordan’s Queen Rania Foundation has created a similar portal, Edraak. Edraak offers Arabic language content from Middle Eastern schools and displays text from right to left.
  • Saudi Arabia has announced its creation of a portal designed to teach vocational skills to its workforce.

Up-to-the-minute information

As we are all too well aware, there is substantial misinformation around the deadly Ebola outbreak devastating West Africa right now. The Irish-based MOOC platform ALISON (which has 250,000 students using its courses in West Africa) has quickly responded with a free MOOC called “Understanding the Ebola virus and how you can avoid it.” So far, at least 10,000 people have completed the course. The ALISON Ebola MOOC can be accessed via mobile phone. It is available in French as well as English and is being translated into Arabic as well.

Mike Feerick, chief executive of ALISON, spoke to the BBC about the MOOC:

“If new information is discovered about Ebola, or how to treat or avoid it, we can instantly relay it to a huge number of learners worldwide.”

ALISON’s virtually instantaneous response to the crisis shows that speed can be an incredible benefit of MOOCs – such in-depth information, delivered systematically to so many people, would simply never have materialised in this way before MOOCs.

Customised training in the corporate sector

Increasingly, leading corporations are looking to MOOCs to help train employees and spur them on in their professional development, while at the same time reducing training costs. For example:

  • The florist 1-800-Flowers has partnered with MOOC platform Udemy on a course where members of its retail florist network can take online classes on the latest trends in floral design, wherever they are in the US.
  • Tenaris, a specialty steelmaker, is using EdX’s software to train its global workforce.
  • At Much Better Adventures, a vacation planning company based in the UK, staff members devote Friday afternoons to learning about how to incorporate sustainability into their operations via MOOCs from Coursera and FutureLearn.

MOOCs as brand enhancer and recruitment channel

Then there is the success of Australia’s University of Tasmania’s “Understanding Dementia” MOOC. The course is nine weeks long, free, and based on the latest in international research on dementia. The first iteration of “Understanding Dementia” attracted 9,300 registrants from more than 60 countries worldwide. Unlike many MOOCs, it did not suffer from dramatic drop-out rates: more than 67% of participants who started the course were still studying after four weeks.

Painstaking research and strategy contributed to the success of the course. It was planned to complement the overall brand, programming, and business model of the University of Tasmania. Deputy Vice-Chancellor David Sadler explains:

“I’d argue that if you look at the dementia [course] and its marketing impact, the online enrolments into the Bachelor of Dementia Care, they’re actually complementing our business model, not undermining it.

We think we hit a workforce that’s in care homes or similar environments that probably don’t have previous tertiary education and may well have emotional and confidence barriers to formal study. The positive experience they’ve had has actually encouraged quite a number of them to carry on; we’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback.”

The course has also focused world attention on a strength of the University of Tasmania: research around social justice. And as Professor Sadler notes,

“It’s provided, outside of the research agenda, an international rationale for what we do that is consistent with the concept of a university that’s driven by values.”

The evolution continues

A May 2014 survey of 83 American institutions (including public and private universities, community colleges and online-learning platforms) found that there were many differing opinions about the value of MOOCs and where they are headed. But a statement with which all respondents agreed is that “MOOCs and MOOC platforms, assuming they still exist, will look vastly different and more sophisticated in five years’ time.”

In the meantime – and despite the heated debate about MOOCs’ benefits, business models, and disruptive potential – many experts and educators agree that MOOCs have been a catalyst for innovation in higher education.

This perspective is well illustrated by the deliberations of an international group of representatives from higher education institutions – including UT Arlington, Stanford University, Hong Kong University, and Davidson College – that convened this month to discuss the impacts of MOOCs. They concluded that MOOCs have:

  • Caused institutions to “engage deeply with questions pertaining to higher education in the digital era,” with the consequence that these questions “inform decision-making and exchanges between students, staff and faculty on a daily basis;”
  • Increased respect for the profession of teaching and lecturing, and driven more intelligent course design;
  • Increased collaboration on course design, pulling in several specialists instead of one professor;
  • Created “safe spaces for experimentation and innovation in teaching and learning.”

As these observations suggest, whatever shape MOOCs take in the future, they are likely to be closely linked to change and innovation in education in the years ahead.



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