MOOCS: The new higher education?

On September 19, Slate Magazine concluded “Online Higher-Education Startup Coursera Is Taking Over the World.” Following Silicon Valley practice, reporter Will Oremus judged Coursera’s success on the basis of the number of customer universities offering Coursera courses. He concludes “Coursera has positioned itself perfectly to capitalize on their eagerness.”

In July, Slate posed the question “Will online education start-ups like Coursera end the era of expensive higher education?” Oremus wrote: “Why would anyone pay tens-of-thousands of dollars for an education at a mid-tier college when they could learn from Ivy League professors online for free (or, at least, for cheap)?”

Former ALT Chief Executive Seb Schmoller commented:

“There is a bubble, in that lots of organisations are thinking that they “have to get on board with MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] or be left behind”.

At the same time, more relevant and substantive discussions of the definition and role of MOOCs were held on the U.K.’s Association for Learning Technology forum.

Diana Laurillard, University of London, observed:

“In what seems to be [MOOCs] most common format that I’ve come across so far they are presentational material of some kind with a discussion forum for students. That’s the old technology equivalent of a textbook in a public library. There is no certification of achievement by the student, only of attendance, at best. So in that format it is not ‘education’, which is a useful term whose meaning should not be stretched too far, I feel”.

But MOOCs have an educational role and Laurillard identified the need for further development:

“MOOCs can be ‘educational’ in the way that TV programmes can be, and when we try them out, as I think we certainly should, we should be trying to extend the format to be more supportive of the learner, while respecting the ‘Massive’ aspect. But a genuine MOOC could never provide the kind of personal feedback to the learner that is the essence of education (along with useful certification of what they have learned). That is the labour-intensive variable cost of education that requires the teaching staff to be massive too. Automated intelligent personalised feedback to learners on the basis of their actions is one of the grand challenges that learning technologies have not yet stepped up to, sadly. I do believe there is potential for that [emphasis added].”

Then MOOCs could get closer to being a form of education that requires less faculty effort and reduces cost.

Laurillard’s book “Rethinking University Teaching: a framework for the effective use of education technology,” published in 1993 and revised in 2002, is still current. She speaks with authority and experience. She led the original development of teaching and learning materials and practices at the British Open University. Their work included:

  • Content – Open University brought faculty and industry experts together from many universities to answer the question: What should a successful student know when they complete this course? (There is a similar activity by some professional organizations in the U.S. for undergraduate courses). The next step was to develop course materials that best supported student learning in ways their life situation permitted—by charter, OU focused on employed students. These materials included syllabus, texts, workbooks, experimental kits, audio and video recording and now online access. These were all provided to students so that they could select those most useful personally. For student contact OU provided local tutors responsible for student success. Tutors had protocols for what actions should be taken when a student was identified as potentially failing. They also facilitated informal group study and discussion, and assisted students individually.
  • Quality – Open University continuously monitors student performance. An early method was to give examinations from and graded by faculty teaching in the traditional universities to a sample of Open University students. OU students scored as well as traditional students. Based on the data from student performance and preferences, OU consistently improved its learning materials and processes. This research led to an OU sponsored major upgrade of the Moodle online learning system—now called a “platform” — made available to all 60,027,325 Moodle users at 67,540 sites in 220 countries (Moodle statistics, 26 September 2012 ).

These same practices were followed by university extension divisions as they moved into online education. The University of California, Berkeley, and now edX partner, is the largest supplier of online and multiple-location technology education in Silicon Valley

Los Rios College in Sacramento, Rio Salado in Phoenix, the Dallas County Community College District, University of Maryland University College, and Athabasca University in Canada today are a constant source of innovation in online learning and are sharing their experience with others. It is not surprising that Harvard edX would be offered by Harvard Extension which has similar experience. And the University of California, Berkeley, now offering BerkeleyX

The edX Consortium may have a superior model.

  • Quality – The Harvard, MIT and Berkeley online courses must meet the same learning objectives as the courses offered traditionally. Faculty committees monitor course offerings and student performance.  EdX will also have proctored examinations [].
  • Business model – The edX Consortium is employing the three-level Kirschner model []. For example, anyone can access the learning materials free. Harvard online courses, with additional services, are available from Harvard Extension—which requires admission. And, third, the classroom experience for enrolled students.
  • Brand – edX President and MIT professor Anant Agarwal said: “We will not water down the courses [to achieve higher success rates]. They will continue to be MIT-hard or Harvard-hard.” This should make the certificate of completion as valuable as classroom participation.

Harvard’s Harry Lewis described the development of CS 20 “Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science”—one of the first two offered by HarvardX—in Harvard Magazine . He described course development:

Thirty-three topic units were a lot to prepare—each includes a slide deck, a recorded lecture, a selection of readings, a set of in-class problems, and homework exercises. The trickiest part was coordinating the workflow and getting everything at the right difficulty level.

MIT’s edX prototype was “Circuits and Electronics,” or 6.002x in MIT’s course-numbering system. It began with MIT Open Courseware materials, but was extended. The discussion groups became so requested that MIT left them open to students after the course ended.

This effort shows the scope and level of investment being made in edX courses.

The edX open-source “platform” is being used by others. “Today the developer of MongoDB, the leading open-source database company, announced today that they will offer two courses on the edX platform.” This expands edX use into professional training. It benefits those who need the specific skills in other to quality for a higher-level position. “Mongo is a hot skill set, usually #2 after generic HTML 5 jobs on recruiting boards.”

Referring to Coursera courses Laurillard observes: “They are free, so there is no business model for their improvement, or sustainability.”

Venture-capital financed startups may begin buying “growth” with free products or services, but at some point a business model has to provide a profit for investors. University customers will likely transition to a Kirchner business model to recover their investment and operating costs; Coursera will likely begin to charge a fee to the universities in the same way that MoodleRooms, a Blackboard subsidiary, charges for delivering online learning using Moodle. An advertising revenue-based model likely would not be acceptable to university customers.

Coursera is a platform, not a learning experience as offered by the edX consortium.

Coursera universities may have difficulty achieving brand recognition as the press references “Coursera courses” rather than HarvardX , MITx or BerkeleyX courses.

Is Coursera taking over the world of higher education? Not yet.

A compilation of the referenced ALT communications is available here.


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8 Responses to MOOCS: The new higher education?

  1. bob puffer says:

    As usual I greatly appreciate Jim’s analysis based in facts and data hard-won from the troughs of information and meaningless statistics in the EdTech arena. An exemplary point made on how organizations like OU and edX are striving for improved learning tools, not just hype and numbers that can be fed to a frantic board of regents who may well be relying on information gathered from the pocket in front of their airline seat.

    Personal plug: hope Michael and Phil caught the numbers Jim quotes here on the 60M Moodle users world-wide. So much is printed about Instructure but a couple big schools does not a revolution make. At 2005 Educause Jim represented SAKAI but was quite familiar and fond of Moodle (while others had hardly heard of it, having only around 4k sites). Seven years later, Martin Dougiamas, a charismatic leader reminiscent of Linus Torvalds has successfully taken Moodle to a point where even Blackboard wants on-board. That’s a revolution.

  2. Peter Hess says:

    Re: “MOOCs can be ‘educational’ in the way that TV programmes can be…”

    Having almost completed a Coursera MOOC in Introductory Statistics, I emphatically disagree with the statement above. The Coursera MOOC was (for me) challenging in a way that a TV program would never be. In plain language, I put in a significant amount of time and worked hard to assimilate the material. There are certainly limitations to the Coursera way, and it would be counterproductive not to acknowledge them. You must be highly motivated and have skills as self-learner to successfully complete a course like this. There are many people who meet these criteria, but for those who don’t, this course would not be a rewarding experience. However, I can imagine a different MOOC constructed so as to support people who are not experienced self learners, and incentives that would partially stand in for self-motivation.

    Although I believe I will complete my statistics course with skills in the range of what I might get from a moderately rigorous undergraduate intro to statistics course, I certainly won’t have mastered those skills. For that, I think I’d need a research methods course that would require the sort of faculty interaction that you could not get from a MOOC.

    I like the Coursera model. Whether EdX can offer a better one will be interesting to see. I started out as a skeptic myself. I now believe that MOOCs are here to stay, and have a lot to offer, but they need to find their niche. They cannot successfully be forced into any convenient slot, and will face a lot of institutional obstacles not related to their inherent value. Still, I think that economic and competitive pressures guarantee that they will overcome these obstacles and become part of the fabric of higher education within the next decade.

    I do wish people would look more deeply into the MOOC experience before writing about them. There seems to me to be an awful lot of superficial and sometimes sanctimonious commentary about the topic.

  3. mgozaydin says:

    Jim Farmer
    I am an engineer too. Therefore I agree with most what you say .
    EDX MITx+ Harvardx is a superior model.
    Coursera is just a platform.
    MITx Harvardx provides learning experience

    I ask people not to put into the same basket EDX and Coursera.
    They are too apart from each other .

  4. mgozaydin says:

    Massive online requires
    TOP Schools + being global.
    Then a school can attract millions students and cost becomes nill, then school charges a small fee like MIT. Harvard

  5. mgozaydin says:

    Laurillard of OU of UK says
    Coursera is free so there is no business model for their improvements and sustainability .
    That is my objection too .
    But I envy them for their ” marketing geniusness ” They woke up the world .

  6. Laraine says:

    I have taken a total of three MOOCs with Coursera at this point, and out of three, two resembled higher education about as much as those pictures of dogs playing poker resemble serious art. In a course purporting to teach Modern American poetry, T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane never got discussed due to a time shortage. My feeling about this is that if you can’t include those two essentials of modern poetry in the time allowed, then pick another subject you can do in ten weeks.

    In a course on fantasy fiction, the professor seemed to think that Sir Philip Sidney wrote “The Faery Queen” and having made the mistake three times never came back to correct it. Apparently the talking head videos used to instruct didn’t get vetted or reviewed because those in charge didn’t much care if the allegedly thousands of students taking it, many of them unfamiliar with English or American literature, got accurate information or not.

    Jeremy Adelman’s world history course was the only that seemed to have any intention of taking its subject seriously. And it does suggest that MOOCs can make a real contribution to education if the school and the instructor involved take the course seriously, which may well have been the case for the person who says his statistics course was challenging.

    But as someone says above, Coursera is just a platform. If MOOCs are going to have a serious impact on education, then the schools that run them and who, one day, presumably will charge for them, need to make sure that the content they convey is at the same level of what’s provided in a brick and mortar classroom. They also need to provide methods of assessing how well that content has been mastered. It’s my experience that both objectives are being met on a strictly hit or miss basis, with some schools using Coursera’s platform to actually educate and others using it strictly to say that they are part of the much hyped new trend but not bothering to discover what’s being learned by the international audience signing up for Coursera’s courses.

  7. What I don’t get is why universities are investing in for profit organizations such as Coursera, Blackboard, Desire2Learn and Canvas when they can get Moodle and now WizIQ premium accounts for the instructors for free?

  8. Pingback: MOOCs: Reaching the Masses in Higher Education |

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