If 2012 was ‘The Year of the MOOC’ then 2013 seems to be the year that the MOOC got real. Announcements from FutureLearn and the EU, and moves into offering academic credit and proctored examinations from Coursera and Udacity take us from a vague idea of this concept at the turn of the decade to saturation press coverage last year. And the agenda is now encroaching on universities and colleges in the UK.
Despite this, many core issues around pedagogy and business models are yet to be resolved. And it is the gaps in these areas that are most usefully highlighted by today’s report from Universities UK. Positioning the debate within a wider climate of the rush to get online across a number of industries, it notes that xMOOC platforms are exploring a number of potential revenue streams but have not yet become financially sustainable. Furthermore, experience from other sectors suggests that free-at-the-point-of-use models are very hard to monetise.
For all the venture capital allocated, it is to be expected that the remainder of this year will be characterised by a rush to monetisation. Already, course development costs (including staff time) are borne by the universities and colleges involved – universities and colleges who have most likely been invited to contribute – and the other overheads are very low. There are no corners to cut, so the move to long-term sustainability must be driven by payment for learning by students, as Udemy are already exploring as an upfront cost and others are charging as a payment for academic credit or assessment.
These latter models are based on the completion of MOOC courses by students, but – as the research of Katy Jordan (of the Open University) and others are demonstrating – the majority of students (more than 90%) are not getting to a position within the course where accreditation or summative assessment would be relevant.
One of the main criticisms of xMOOCs is that their basic broadcast pedagogical model relies on ‘talking head’ lectures with very limited or no support and feedback for students. The often-valid criticism of this mode of delivery has been compounded by a high reduction in rates between the initial registration numbers and the numbers who complete the final stages of a course. These levels of reduction raise questions about the viability of MOOCs as legitimate models of higher education.
Though the report adds that most xMOOCs that have data available are still ‘graduating’ 1,000 or more students, this is not a huge potential market for paid-for credit or assessment. The sheer initial scale of a MOOC prevents the use of class discussion and debate. Some platforms have experimented with having students assess each other’s work, but this has seen mixed results.
In this context, UUK highlight the innovations of the Jisc-supported Coventry Open Media Classes project. By stating that Coventry University hosts the live and paid-for version of the course that enables a one-on-one mentored experience and makes full use of all the university’s facilities. The course enables students to engage with a global community of participants, enabling them to locate their work alongside different professional networks. This also gives students the opportunity to develop professional relationships during the course of their studies.
Much, if not all, of this enhanced student experience is possible because of the Coventry team’s emphasis on open resources and open technology – which enhances the experience of online and on-campus students by allowing for interaction between them.
Rather than attempting to lock content away, the department made the course open and available to all and encouraged students and non-students, including experts and alumni, to engage with it.
The second part of the UUK report examines the wider need to respond to the ‘digital challenge’. There is much here that will be familiar to anyone that has engaged with Jisc over the past five years, particularly drawing on programme findings from our work on Assessment and Feedback, Digital Literacies and Open Educational Resources. It is very welcome to see the overwhelming interest in MOOCs being directed towards the kind of tangible and usable tools and approaches that can benefit universities and colleges directly.
Looking to the immediate future, the report concludes that institutions should be examining online learning at scale (both in terms of MOOCs and other digital affordances) in terms of mission, recruitment and innovation – focusing on the role of technology in enhancing and growing existing provision. This is a clear fit to our emphasis on blended learning as the main benefit to technology enhanced learning, with purely online tuition remaining (as it was in our 2010 survey) a niche product for experienced learners.
For more information on MOOCs and online learning why not:
Read our Jisc CETIS report on MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education
Get tips from Lou McGill on online learning terminology.