MOOCs have made us think. As one of the most fascinating developments in higher education in my lifetime, they are,in many ways, a pioneer of a more ‘open’ spirit in learning. I’d contend that MOOCs, for all their promises and faults, have been at their most effective in forcing a rethink in Higher Education.
1. Rethink demand
MOOCs have uncovered huge demand beyond what the traditional University system has to offer. They are a solution to a demand problem, which seems to be growing, rather than shrinking. With over 4550 MOOCs, with around 200 added every month and getting on for 40 million enrolments, demand grows and supply follows. The simple truth is that we have moved beyond the early adopter phase (discussed here) where only those in the know knew about MOOCs, hence the graduate profile, to a wider audience, that includes school students and those in work, retirement and so on. This has, I suspect, come as a surprise to those in Higher Education, who assumed that they were, in the past, satisfying demand.
2. Rethink curricula
The evidence over the last 3-4 years suggests that there is greater demand for courses at the vocational, than academic end of the spectrum. This is not to say that humanities and other forms of liberal arts courses are not in demand, just that MOOCs have shone a spotlight on the real fuel mixture of real demand, which is more practical than most predicted. In my view, this suggests one of two things; that the balance of University courses is wrong or that the vocational sector has suffered as funding has been sucked up into the academic University sector. I suspect that both of these are true. In any case, we have seen a huge demand for courses that satisfy not only educational but career demand, especially business, IT, teaching and healthcare.
3. Rethink structure
MOOC courses initially followed the existing semester model of up to ten weeks, drip-feeding content, with a largely linear curricular structure. Universities find it difficult to deal with shorter courses, more asynchronous learning and less linear course delivery but MOOCs have moved in this direction. We also see courses with looser, more collaborative and open structures. The very concept of a course is, in a sense, being redefined by the variety of MOOCs that has emerged. Note that the old xMOOC-cMOOC distinction is all but dead (discussed here), as the sheer spectrum of MOOC types has expanded.
4. Rethink pedagogy
No one puts one-hour lectures up on MOOCs. The evidence shows that they don’t work, that people lose attention and that there is nothing in the psychology of learning that says they are even near the mark in terms of efficacy. MOOCs eschew long-form lectures for shorted episodes and a more mixed selection presentation. MOOCs, I suspect, have already pushed many institutions to rethink, not only their length, whether they should be recorded and the very nature of the lecture as their primary pedagogic form. There are many other pedagogic issues that are being rethought around types of resources, media mix, active learning and collaboration.
5. Rethink assessment
MOOCs have forced a rethink on what it is to assess, as well as assessment techniques. A range of assessments are being tried, including statements of completion, statements of attainment, through to fully proctored, online examinations. On techniques, they have moved us beyond the standard ‘lecture-essay’ model to a range of online assessment techniques; peer assessment, machine marking, automated essay marking, online proctoring, typing pattern recognition, face recognition and so on.
6. Rethink accreditation
Georgia Tech and Udacity deliver an online computer science master’s program with 3,000 students, compared to the campus’s 300 students and projections are heading towards 10.000. ASU with edX, the American Council on Education, Charter Oak State College, and MIT offer accredited MOOCs. We are already seeing the expansion of accreditation beyond institutional degree awards toward, micro-accreditation through badges and other forms of certification. The University of Derby had a 35.6% completion rate on their ‘Dementia MOOC’ and put some of this success down to their badging of each of the six sections and a badge for completion.
7. Rethink technology
Online learning is not just MOOCs. There was and is a huge range of online learning approaches from search, reference, informal, e-learning, collaborative, adaptive, simulations and so on. May Universities were using these technique before MOOCs came along and many continue to do so. What has happened is an increased focus on digital strategy, especially by leaders in these institutions who have had to create digital strategies. Even at faculty level, few academics can afford to ignore the simple fact that every students, researcher and teacher uses the internet as a fundamental tool. For some, such as ASU, University of Edinburgh, Delft University and many more, it is reshaping the very nature of course delivery at undergraduate and Masters level.
8. Rethink cost
A common question when MOOCs are mentioned is, “How do you monetise MOOCs? It’s usually delivered with a ‘Gotcha’ tone. The financial and business models in education are complex. However, we can be sure of one thing, the current University system can’t monetise itself. The whole structure is propped up by state spending and huge loan books. MOOCs went out on a limb and tried some new models and they should be applauded for doing so. In practice, people do invest their time and money in taking MOOCs. Rather than being stuck with the many thousands of dollars/pounds per annum plus living expenses, other cheaper models are emerging that put less of a burden on the learner, parent or state. Some one pays and the real question here is not just who pays but what we should pay. Most areas of human endeavour have seen falls in prices, apart from education which has been ballooning out of control. Beyond this Udacity are promising a job or money back guarantee on their NanoMOOCs – how bold is that?
9. Rethink role
This is a subtler point but I believe that the MOOC phenomenon has uncovered an uncomfortable truth, that Higher Education is not now the sole provider of higher education. As MOOCs moved out of their traditional curriculum and pedagogic structures, they began to be produced by other types of organisations, for audiences outside of mindset of the 18 year old undergraduate. Oddly, the main opposition to MOOCs comes not from learners or the public, but from those within current institutions, who see MOOCs, not as progress but a threat to the status quo. Higher Education will not suffer greatly from their presence but the provision for higher education will be greatly widened as they play a smaller role.
10. Rethink global role
MOOCs can be taken by anyone from anywhere in the world with internet access. This has forced institutions to think more openly and globally. A good example is the global partnership and transfer agreements between Delft University, Delft University of Technology, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), the Australian National University (ANU), the University of Queensland, the University of British Columbia, and Boston University, where students can take MOOCs from several Universities around the world and have them recognised by all in the alliance. Malaysia has announced that all of its state universities will grant MOOC credits and allow transfer. The model is similar to airline alliances and codeshare, where the passenger can book a ticket and travel across an entire network to get to their destination. We will see more of this emerge as gobalisation of higher education moves beyond one year swaps.
More than a rethink, I think MOOCs have forced many into a reboot when it comes to the use of technology in learning. This is, in my view, a necessary condition for progress in terms of learning, teaching, demand, pedagogy, curricula, assessment, accreditation, culture, cost and role. The very idea of Higher Education is being altered as we speak.
A great source for MOOC stats and announcements is ClassCentral.