Out-moocing the MOOCs: Traditional institutions fight back

The rumblings of a revolution are afoot in higher education

MOOCs – massive open online courses – were hailed as the great disruptor to higher education. Now, the institutions they were predicted to dislodge are adapting MOOCs and using their best features for on-campus teaching.

For years, little had changed within higher education, until a breed of online providers brought the rumblings of a revolution. Carrying the undistinguished acronym of MOOCs, massive open online courses were hailed as the radical future of learning – a fee-free model that threatened the hallowed halls of universities and the business models that supported them.

Now that the dust has settled, it appears MOOCs have indeed signalled a fundamental shift in higher education. Instead of replacing on-campus learning, though, MOOCs are assisting bricks-and-mortar universities to engage with the cutting edge of teaching innovation.

The birth of moocs

First introduced in 2008, MOOCs emerged as popular modes of learning in 2012 with the launch of Coursera, an online education platform founded by computer science professors at Stanford University. Coursera was soon followed by Udacity, also from Stanford, and edX, the non-profit amalgam of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Today, about 400 universities, including some of the world’s most elite institutions, have partnered with MOOC providers to put more than 2000 courses online for free. Courses such as the fundamentals of neuroscience from Harvard or the principles of macroeconomics from the University of Melbourne are now within reach for any student with a sense of curiosity and an internet connection. The number of learners enrolled in MOOCs today exceeds 20 million. 

Flipping the classroom

The arrival of MOOCs posed a fundamental question for higher education. If students could learn online from rock star professors, what would this mean for fee-based bricks-and-mortar institutions? 

“MOOCs haven’t had the disruptive effect that was predicted, because people were ignoring that universities would be adapting their own delivery models in the classroom as well,” says Professor Paul Kofman, dean of the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne.

In 2013, the university was the first in Australia to partner with Coursera. Its MOOCs program has reached more than 850,000 enrolled learners in more than 120 countries.

MOOCs have encouraged universities to explore how technology can enhance learning. Professor Greg Whitwell, dean of the University of Sydney Business School, points to the theory of the flipped classroom, whereby universities move away from the “stand-and-deliver” classroom format to one where on-campus time is spent exploring the application of knowledge.

“We weren’t in it to make money. We were in it for education reasons.” Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, Australian National University

“The format will be influenced by what we’ve learned from MOOCs, namely that people’s attention span is fairly limited,” he says. Whitwell describes a blended learning approach whereby information is presented in snippets of around 10 minutes for students to view online in their own time as often as they choose.

“Then what happens in the classroom is that you engage in active learning,” he says. “The transition is from the sage on the stage to the coach on the side.”

Reaching new audiences

It’s not only the university sector that is taking cues from MOOCs. Rob Thomason, executive general manager of education at CPA Australia, says elements of MOOCs can provide a richer educational experience. 

“We’re taking some of the developments that people have been using within MOOCs in terms of videos, complex gamification and online quizzes to improve learning in the CPA Program,” he says.

Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, deputy vice chancellor (academic) of Australian National University (ANU), says MOOCs have allowed the university to reach students in countries where it traditionally had a low profile. She points to a significant uptake in India and Pakistan, particularly in its Engaging India MOOC, which last year became the world’s first bilingual Hindi-English MOOC.

Close to 175,000 people have joined a MOOC from ANU since the university partnered with edX in 2013. About 4-6 per cent of total enrolments in MOOC subjects at ANU are from Australian students, but the largest numbers are from the US, India and Pakistan. Hughes-Warrington also notes a significant growth in enrolments from China. Whether many of these enrollees will convert to fee-paying campus-based students remains unclear. 

“We weren’t in it to make money,” says Hughes-Warrington. “We were in it for education reasons. We’ll continue to make MOOCs that reflect our research strengths.”

One audience ripe for conversion may be found in the high school sector. Here, students are now accessing MOOCs as a means of accelerating their learning. In the ACT, students who study a MOOC from ANU can have it counted toward their official tertiary entrance score. ANU is currently working with other states of Australia to have its subjects accredited in the same way. 

“Things like this are having a disruptive influence on what has traditionally been the state-level management of education in the secondary sector,” says Hughes-Warrington.

“That means our processes, our quality assurance and the way we think about the governance of secondary education has to change and keep pace. There are some growing pains in that space, I can tell you.”

Rather than replacing substantial components of the higher education market, MOOCs are presenting opportunities. Hughes-Warrington predicts the makings of a happy marriage.

“Our undergraduate enrolments [at ANU] went up by 15 per cent this year,” she says. “If anything, we think that being out there a bit more has helped reinforce the value of the on-campus experience that we have. We’re comfortable that these two things can co-exist pretty well together.”

Whitwell views MOOCs as enabling rather than purely disruptive.

“I think the reason that universities such as ours are getting into MOOCs is not because they’ll make any money – in fact, there’s a good chance they’ll lose money as the development costs can be very substantial. It’s because they provide the stimulus to get you to think differently about the best ways to impart knowledge.” 

Maintenance for moocs

MOOCs may score top marks for accessibility, but it remains unclear how effective they are as stand-alone teaching models. Completion rates are generally poor, with about 90 per cent of people who enrol in MOOCs failing to reach completion.

“I think one of the reasons for the high drop-out rate in MOOCs is that they’re a very isolating experience,” says Whitwell.

Of the 66,286 learners who enrolled in the University of Melbourne’s “Principles of Macroeconomics” MOOC in 2013, less than half started the course and only 4.72 per cent of those who started it completed the course.

“The number of students who expressed interest in the original MOOCs was staggering,” says Kofman.

“Those numbers are declining a bit. I think they will continue to decline in this whole space and there will be a bit of a refocus on face-to-face teaching.”

MOOCs critics have also expressed concern about the rigour of assessment. Claims of MOOCs democratising education have been questioned. A 2013 study by the University of Pennsylvania showed that, rather than reaching people who would not otherwise have access to higher education, around 80 per cent of students studying a MOOC from the university already had a degree of some kind. 

Another perceived flaw is that successful completion of a MOOC from an elite university rarely leads to a recognised form of accreditation. While participants can pay for a certificate of completion, its real value remains undefined. 

MOOCs are undergoing maintenance to improve their offering. Anant Agarwal, chief executive of edX, says they will continue to evolve.

"We’re excited to see where online learning goes." Anant Agarwal, EDX 

“When MOOCs first came to prominence a few short years ago, a large part of the focus was on scale,” he notes.

“Much of our energy was spent figuring out how to take classroom experiences that accommodated, at most, about a hundred students and make them accessible for numbers into the hundreds of thousands.”

Agarwal says MOOCs will evolve to become more personalised, by incorporating teams within the MOOC learning experience or by introducing adaptive learning where students can choose their own adventure.

“Technology has the potential to create personalised experiences at scale and with an efficiency that is unimaginable,” adds Agarwal. “We believe MOOCs are heading in this direction.”

How MOOCs make money

The best things in life may be free but, in the end, someone needs to make money. Coursera raises revenue through charging up to US$80 for verified certificates that authenticate successful course completion. It also makes money through tutoring, tuition fees and sponsorships.

In 2013, the online education platform announced it had earned US$1 million in revenue and three months later it had raised US$85 million in venture capital. 

Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) provided a combined US$60 million in funding for edX – the only leading MOOC provider with a non-profit model. Its CEO, Anant Agarwal, says that, while edX puts principles before profit, it understands the importance of being self-sustaining.

“EdX is considering or experimenting with a number of different revenue models and pilot programs to determine which are best suited for us,” he explains. These include fees for certificates of mastery, licensing course content to other institutions, and course hosting and support services for other organisations using its platform. 

While MOOCs are clearly popular, low completion rates may threaten much of the funding model. “Online education is the new frontier in many ways,” says Agarwal. “Up to now, quality education, and in some cases any higher education at all, has been the privilege of the few. We’re excited to see where online learning goes in the next five, 10, 20 years and beyond.”

SMOCs, DOCCs and SPOCs – how MOOCs are mutating

The MOOC has spawned new breeds of open online courses. While each has elements of the original model, their key differences address some of the perceived failings of MOOCs, such as student isolation, the hierarchical transfer of knowledge and a lack of personalisation.

SMOCs: Synchronous massive online courses incorporate typical online content offerings with coordinated class times. Developed by psychology professors at the University of Texas and influenced by television programs such as daytime talk show The View, SMOCs build the sense of community often lacking in MOOCs.

As students move between presentations from lecturers and online chat rooms about the course material, teachers can view and respond to the discussions.

DOCCs: Distributed open collaborative courses are based on the idea that who you learn with is as important as what you learn. While MOOCs maintain a top-down hierarchy of learning, DOCCs include participants from different settings who perform diverse roles.

DOCCs bring together the work of students to form new learning material. While they share similar features to MOOCs, such as videos and course materials, the DOCC model is seen as more responsive and democratic.

SPOCs: Small private online courses are still free, but access is restricted to much smaller numbers than MOOCs. Students undergo a selection process and there is more capacity to customise content. Harvard and the University of California are now experimenting with this model of online learning, which is regarded as more refined.

“The transition is from the sage on the stage to the coach on the side.” Professor Greg Whitwell, University of Sydney

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