Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been touted as the next big thing in higher education by everyone from newspapers to universities and politicians. Free access to the world’s collected knowledge, genuine equality of education, no borders to learning. But are they a vision of the future or is all this too good to be true?
At first glance the advent of MOOCs seems like an unequivocally good thing. Any adult, wherever they are and whatever their prior educational experience can take part in higher education via a MOOC. So-called ‘cold spots’ (areas lacking in HE institutions) no longer matter, and no-one need choose a course based on what’s on offer in their locality. Does this mean that everyone is capable of (or interested in) completing a course from Harvard or MIT? Will they necessarily benefit if they do?
There are many reasons why people enter higher education. They may want specialist knowledge to put into practical use, either in their current job or one they aspire to. They may have an interest in the subject for its own sake, and want to delve more deeply or enjoy a more discursive learning process than they could by reading books. They may simply want to broaden their mind and develop skills in critical thinking or extended writing that could come from studying any of a wide range of subjects, or they may need a particular qualification in order to pursue their career. As they exist at the moment and for the forseeable future, MOOCs may suit some of those groups but not others.
For gaining specialist knowledge, a MOOC can be invaluable. Say someone wants to learn about computer programming at a high level, they know they learn better from videos and practical exercises than from books, and they have a fairly narrow focus. Chances are they can try out a few modules from different providers – after all, it’s not costing any money – and they need only concentrate on those sections that most interest them. However, if there’s no interaction with a tutor, and they aren’t examined on the material, it’s possible they could walk away with an imperfect grasp of the subject. That could cause problems when they try to apply their new knowledge at work. It’s also not currently possible to gain practical experience in subjects that rely on laboratories or workshops, which rules out most of science and engineering. There are now computer models that allow student dentists to drill virtual teeth, or engineers to carry out experiments without using physical equipment, but the specialist computing set-up needed rather negates the accessible nature of the course. Even on humanities courses, the bandwidth needed to watch the video lectures can be beyond the reach of many students, or they require a particular up to date plug-in. There is a danger that the courses use such technological innovations that they’re not as open as they seem to be.
The interactive nature of MOOCs, with globally connected student cohorts able to discuss topics and help each other learn, is ideal for those with the time and interest to participate. Rather than sit at home and read a book they can watch a lecture, chat about it with other students on a forum and learn from the experiences of others. It may be that there’s no local provision, they haven’t the money to spare for course fees, or are unable to attend an institution at set times (for example, due to commitments as a carer). They might simply not want to be examined in the subject, but whatever the reason, the rise of the MOOC has opened up this kind of learning to a wider audience. Some courses have such enormous cohorts that the student body is fragmented and the experience becomes impersonal, but it may still be preferable to the alternative of solitary book-learning.
The pleasure and benefits of higher education for its own sake, with no particular subject or even a qualification in mind, are being lost in the UK, and in other areas where tuition fees are in place and higher education has become commercialised. A degree is increasingly seen as a commodity, an exchange of money for a certain number of contact hours and one to one meetings. In this sense a MOOC could be seen as good value, since the skills can be gained for free, and as long as a prospective employer (or promotions board) can be persuaded that this personal development has indeed taken place the student ends up in a better position than where they began.
As long as universities view MOOCs as a kind of free trial, an advertisement for their education system which has the potential to attract new paying students, they will continue to be an attractive proposition to them. With no estate costs, and little in the way of extra staff costs (mostly technical and support staff, as opposed to lecturers) they can reach vast numbers of students and generate income by recruiting a small percentage onto further courses with fees, or persuading them to pay for an accredited qualification at the end of the MOOC. There is no incentive for any HE provider to allow students to acquire a qualification with no money changing hands at all.
And therein lies the rub – for the vast majority of students in higher education, it’s the qualification that matters. It unlocks the job market, or the next rung on the promotion ladder. It singles them out from the competition or ticks a box on an immigration form. It can be argued that MOOCs have allowed someone on a low income in a different city – or even country – from a particular internationally-renowned university to participate in its elite degree programme, but that’s very different from gaining the same qualification as the students who turn up in person. When that low income student needs to pay for exams and certificates, a MOOC just becomes another distance-learning programme.
Higher education by distance learning has been around for many years, but still accounts for a relatively small number of students, at least in part to allow for proper support. The very nature of an open course which can be so liberating for those who have the capability for study but not the prior qualifications, can be off-putting where someone tries a MOOC which isn’t suited to them and then feels that they aren’t capable of advanced study. By going through some kind of gatekeeper, they would either have been advised to try something else first, or given the support they need. If someone on a MOOC is struggling or drops out, no-one will notice and reach out to them as they would with a traditional HE course.
In conclusion then, while the MOOC will no doubt persist in some form and to some degree as part of the future of higher education, it will never be the whole answer. Not all potential students have the time management or other personal skills needed to engage successfully in such a disconnected learning environment, but for some it will fit the bill as a taster of further study, as a hobby, or for a particular professional development need.