By Phil Hill
One aspect of last week’s Coursera announcement was the acknowledgement that MOOCs to date have primarily served as a mechanism for professional development, not as a mechanism for serving higher education per se. In the Chronicle article:
Daphne Koller, a co-founder of Coursera, acknowledged that the company was venturing into new terrain. After studying their MOOC users, the company realized that most of them had already earned college degrees, said Ms. Koller. That was well and good, but it suggested to Coursera’s founders that MOOCs would not be sufficient to achieve their ambitions.
“If you’re looking to really move the needle on fundamental educational problems, inside and outside the United States, you’re going to need to help people reach the first milestone, which is getting their degrees to begin with,” Ms. Koller said.
and from the New York Times:
“Our first year, we were enamored with the possibilities of scale in MOOCs,” said Daphne Koller, one of the two Stanford computer science professors who founded Coursera. “Now we are thinking about how to use the materials on campus to move along the completion agenda and other challenges facing the largest public university systems.”
These statements can be understood by looking at the demographic data for students that have been taking xMOOCs (i.e. from Coursera, Udacity and edX) in their first year.
As early as Fall 2012, demographic information was coming out that the majority of MOOC students already had a higher education degree. From Chuck Severance’s slideshare summarizing student data in his Internet History, Technology and Security course on Coursera, we saw that 73% of students answering his survey already had at least a bachelor’s degree.
From Duke’s February 2013 report on their Bioelectricity course on Coursera, 72% of students answering their survey already had at least a bachelor’s degree.
And from the University of Edinburgh’s May 2013 report on six different courses all on Coursera, we find that a combined 70% of students in their study already had at least a bachelor’s degree.
At Coursera’s April 2013 partners conference, they shared that across all courses 75% of students within their system already had at least a bachelor’s degree.
Is this situation unique to Coursera? Perhaps not. In the Summer 2013 issue of Research & Practice in Assessment magazine, Lori Breslow and others studied the Circuits & Electronics course in edX and found that 65% of students answering his survey already had at least a bachelor’s degree.
Of the survey responders who answered a question about highest degree attained, 37% had a bachelor’s degree, 28% had a master’s or professional degree, and 27% were high school graduates.
It is interesting to note that there is virtually no public data from Udacity or its partners. Coursera and their partners have been leaders among the xMOOC providers in sharing data from these courses.
The consistency of data (ranging from 65% – 75% of MOOC students having at least a bachelor’s degree) is actually quite remarkable given the ad hoc nature of surveys and studies.
When combined with the fact that MOOCs to date have not been applied for academic credit, it is apparent that the primary usage of MOOCs has been for professional development or lifelong learning. Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .
In fact, some of the proponents of the original connectivist MOOCs, or cMOOCs, have exactly that goal in mind of enabling lifelong learning.
How Does This Affect Recent Announcements?
The MOOC providers set out to revolutionize higher education, but as Daphne Koller indicated the usage of standalone MOOC courses to date is not sufficient, despite the huge numbers of enrolled students. The data points to the need for targeting degree-seeking students in a more aggressive manner than the current “it’s open for all” approach while also finding more immediate methods for allowing MOOC students to earn academic credit. To allow for academic credit for MOOCs, the actual course designs and assessment have satisfy accrediting bodies, and the credits have to be accepted by degree-granting institutions.
To have a real impact on helping students get their degrees, there seems to be two choices:
- Option 1) Replace colleges and universities as providers of for-credit courses or even degree programs
- Option 2) Work with colleges and universities to embed MOOC courses or courseware into for-credit courses or degree programs
The biggest news in the MOOC world in 2013 is the development of Option 2), which is the only viable way in the short term for MOOCs to directly impact degree-seeking higher education students. edX expanded their pilot program at San Jose State University to embed Circuits & Electronics MOOC within official SJSU courses. Udacity also announced a program with SJSU to offer for-credit MOOC-based courses. Udacity also announced the development of a MOOC-only online master’s degree program through Georgia Tech. And now, Coursera also moves to use MOOC courses as the basis for college and university courses.
I do not see Options 1) and 2) and mutually exclusive, by the way. I would assume that Coursera, Udacity and edX will continue to offer standalone MOOCs while also enabling collegiate embedding of MOOCs into official courses and programs.