Evolution or revolution? MOOCs, open access and online learning

The acceleration of MOOCs from just another piece of educational technology to a year-defining concept was as quick in 2012 as the related end-of-year reviews and trend reports were prolific[1].  The first few months of 2013 has seen further attempts to make sense of the practical implications of this phenomenon for HE institutions, and also clear and sober predictions for the future of this technology.

These attempts have included a high-level symposium, Online and Open-Access Learning in Higher Education: MOOCs, new pedagogies and business models, organised by the University of London International Programmes, the Observatory for Borderless Higher Education and the Leadership Foundation.  The event bought together some very interesting speakers on the subjects of open access and online learning (and especially MOOCs), who encouraged some fascinating discussions from delegates.

A widely-shared review of the MOOC trend at the end of 2012 raised a series of unanswered questions for the HE sector, and some of these areas emerged as key discussion areas for delegates and speakers.  In the short- to medium- term, discourse gathered around some of the facets of the model, such as the use of technology and pedagogy in MOOCs.  In the longer term the wider implications of these radical changes were considered.

Coursera logoDemand for HE, particularly in the developing world, is vast[2].  Internet and mobile technology use are growing at a great rate.  Internet use increased 480% globally from 2000-2011[3].  In the US 98% of students own a digital device, and 38% cannot go more than 10 minutes without using one[4].  Platforms that offer HE content to vast numbers online (Coursera – 3 million students and counting, EdX – currently around 700,000 registered students) might be able to sate this demand, and with relatively low costs, but the success is not assured.

Symposium speaker Diana Laurillard queried how teachers will be able to play their role (e.g. nurturing, shaping, increasing knowledge and understanding) in this HE scenario with high student numbers and little or no contact with teachers[5].   Resolving pedagogic issues, such as those around assessment and student support may be a key part of MOOCs offering a viable alternative to campus-based higher education. Laurillard discussed the provision of valid alternatives to the established 1:25 tutor-to-student ratio in online learning and teaching in the context of MOOCs.  She also identified the importance of practical research – successful new pedagogies will need people to innovate, test and build evidence for what works online.

The digital pedagogies and technologies that take MOOCs to the next level might be tantalisingly close.  In another 'Virtual Client' picturepresentation[6], Diana Oblinger from Educause, a non-profit community of IT professionals, identified several possible sources for these innovations, such as individualised learning pathways, student support tailored to learner needs and ‘virtual clients’ (which use artificial intelligence) who engage with students.  In his presentation[7], Jeff Borden from Pearson set out a succession of educational technology advances that may make online pedagogy and support more effective, including immersive environments and dashboards for student progress.

There are other practical issues around the future of MOOCs that are only now appearing – in particular the revenue models for emerging platforms and how they are accrediting their courses.  In the US, Coursera are working with the FutureLearn logoAmerican Council on Education to offer credit equivalency for courses.  Udacity and EdX learners are given the option of final exams at Pearson test centres.  These services are offered at a cost.  Whether and how non-US platforms, such as the OU-led consortium FutureLearn, follow this lead is still to be seen, but revenue streams may be what funds the pedagogic research and innovation that develops these new models further.

Discussions at the conference and beyond have considered what new models and pedagogies might mean for the future of HE in the UK and globally.  The UK HE system was designed for elite rather than mass participation, and there was a general sense that MOOCs may force changes to this status quo, satisfying the vast demand that exists and perhaps addressing some of the cost issues that are currently being faced.  However this is likely to be somewhat dependent on platforms overcoming issues of scalability, drop-out and student motivation.  These are likely to be key areas for future research and development in order to advance provision.

Diana Laurillard at 5 Feb conference

Delegates at the conference included a number of Centre for Distance Education Fellows who were asked to consider the discussions at the conference in relation to their own experience and predictions for the future.  Amongst these particular HE experts there is a general belief that MOOCs will increase global competition and internationalised education – for better or worse student choice and access will be increased.  It is expected that in particular MOOCs will play a significant role in professional development, short course strategies and postgraduate provision.  For example, the model may be very suitable for students of the latter who have been successful as undergraduates already and can manage better with online content and less support.

What are the some of the broader implications for the HE sector?  It’s quite possible that the future will be a two (or more) tiered system.  The top tier of campus based provision would be for the rich and super bright.  The second tier a development of the MOOC model with delivery to the masses at affordable prices, with improved technology and pedagogy to provide success for the majority, not a 90% drop out.

There are also possible implications less welcome to the sector.  Stephen Brown (De Montfort University) has suggested that finding a way to generate sufficient revenue to overcome the significant entry costs for participating institutions is likely to be a major determining factor in the success of MOOCs.   He explains “for example, if the tuition support, examinations and certification related to a particular MOOC can be provided by other organisations, some of which may be private enterprises, then the traditionally integrated range of academic services offered by universities may become unbundled. At present universities compete for students. In the near future some may compete to supply particular services (and data derived from those services) and some may find that services they currently offer will in future be provided by others.”

He goes on to question whether it will be sustainable for many universities to teach their own versions of basic introductory first year courses or whether such routine content could be delivered by just a few MOOCs.  From a pedagogical perspective the answer has to be “no”, but for economic reasons the answer is likely to be “yes”.  He adds an additional note of caution – it is not clear whether the level of understanding of consumer demand is any better than it was during the dot com fuelled virtual university bonanza.  High-profile failures should not be forgotten in proclaiming a new dawn for online learning.

Continuing from a pedagogical point of view, MOOCs provide the opportunity for the discourse on technology enhanced learning to come to the forefront of HE innovation. It is significant that for the first time in years senior managers in HE are being attentive and receptive to the idea of innovating academic practice. Whatever the motivations, this is a significant gain for those that believe that HE should be transformed under the impact of technology-enhanced learning. In this respect, MOOCs represent an interesting experiment, even if the pedagogic innovation for the moment consists of either (1) revisiting initiatives and approaches that were deemed inadequate or not ready to support student learning in the past (i.e. artificial intelligence), (2) exploiting current popular research endeavours on learning analytics and big data, or (3) being aspirational about providing instantiations of theories such as Connectivism in online learning. MOOCs also look set to revive and popularise important discourses on open access, open educational resources, social media and emergent technologies beyond traditional institutional boundaries.

In the longer term, what does the success of these new MOOC platforms mean to higher education globally and locally? Whether or not they are the future in themselves, what is approaching in the near future (or even now?) may be game-changing.  It’s been argued that “the most compelling aspect of the proliferation of MOOCs is that it is helping frame important discussions about online learning that simply could not have taken place before the advent of actual experiments in learning at scale.”[8] We may in fact be in the middle of an open-access and online evolution rather than a MOOC revolution.

Tom Inkelaar, Research and Development Manager
Centre for Distance Education, University of London International Programmes

With thanks to CDE Fellows:

Professor Alan Tait, Professor of Distance Education and Development, Open University
Jon Gregson, Head of Knowledge Services, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex
Professor Stephen Brown, Professor of Learning Technologies, De Montfort University, Leicester
Dr Stylianos Hatzipanagos, Senior Lecturer in Technology Enhanced Learning, King’s College London

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