The world of MOOCs – massive online open courses – is moving rapidly. Initial excitement about the possibility of MOOCs to democratize education has now moved into more measured discussions about how to make that happen. While MOOCs have certainly provided tens of thousands of learners with access to lectures by engaging and thoughtful professors, their impact appears to have been limited. The vast majority – up to 90% of those who start these courses – do not complete them. The most effective MOOCS, sceptics say, function more like traditional distance learning courses, and are hardly disrupting the world of higher education.
The long-term future of MOOCs is far from clear. What will need to happen if MOOCs are to truly open up the world of higher education?
Read what four leading experts have to say on the topic.
With MOOCs, We Can Leverage New Pedagogies
Dr. Lori Breslow
Director of Teaching & Learning Laboratory (TLL)
Opening Up Knowledge to the World Is a Wondrous Thing
Mr. Donald Clark
Former CEO of Epic Group PLC, Technology Blogger
MOOCs Will Play a Vital Role in Developing Countries
President & Chief Executive Officer of Commonwealth of Learning (Vancouver), Canada
MOOCs are here to stay. This is a natural progression in the different stages of distance education. Starting with external degrees, correspondence courses, open and distance learning, and more recently open educational resources (OER), MOOCs constitute the fifth generation of increasingly open access to education.
Developing countries can harness MOOCs to expand access to quality education at low cost. Most developing countries are experiencing a youth bulge. Africa today is the most youthful continent with 65% of its 1 billion population under the age of 35. If this youth bulge is to be converted into a demographic dividend, these young people need education and training, and most governments will not be able to provide these through conventional brick and mortar approaches. They are looking for alternative and cost-effective ways and traditional distance learning has been one approach. With the availability of affordable technologies, MOOCs have the potential to further reach the unreached.
However, at the moment, the MOOCs space is largely dominated by elite North American research institutions and ‘star’ professors. Most developing world institutions would find it a challenge to compete with these global ‘brands’. But instead of allowing this to deter them, the institutions in developing countries must separate the ‘brand’ from the ‘technology’ and seize the opportunity to harness the power of the platform to offer needs-based programs.
MOOC initiatives in the developing world have so far emanated from technology based institutions, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (the IITs), or the Virtual University in Pakistan. The institutions which can really capitalize on the MOOC movement are the traditional open and distance learning universities. With the exception of the Open University UK, which has launched FutureLearn, a MOOC consortium of European institutions, other players have not yet come forward with any concrete initiatives.
How do higher education institutions stand to gain from participation in the MOOC movement? One, the free and open source platforms like Open edX can be configured to enhance many learners’ experience through peer-to-peer and professor-learner interactions. Two, Learning Analytics – that is, automated tools to diagnose learner needs based on their online interactions and course performance – promise to provide learners with rapid feedback and more personalized and customized learning pathways. Three, data generated through Learning Analytics will support the development of effective and flexible systems for credit transfers and recognition of qualifications.
Most learners in developing countries need access to better quality content, and. perform better with mentoring and tutorial support. They are looking for qualifications rather than just certificates of participation. How can the existing MOOC model serve these aspirations? OER, which support greater interaction and opportunities for collaboration and support, can be easily harnessed to serve this need for quality content and could form the basis for more MOOCs in the future.
The MOOC model for the developing world will need to be re-engineered to include blended approaches that have offline and online components to provide effective learner support. Open and distance learning institutions can use their contact/study centers for providing these services and for conducting proctored exams, to overcome the concerns relating to verification and credentialing.
Concerns that developing countries are struggling with at the moment include the lack of a MOOC infrastructure. Access to devices and connectivity are still a constraint which is being addressed at many levels by governments through provision of free low-cost devices and connectivity at affordable costs.
There is a division of opinion among the faculty regarding the value of MOOCs—will only the rock stars of academia be able to offer successful MOOCs or will the average faculty member ride the MOOC wave to stardom? Either way, what will count eventually is the quality of the teaching-learning experience and this will separate the ‘best’ from the ‘rest’.
At the moment, institutions in the developing world are not offering MOOCs for primary qualifications. MOOCs are being used for continuing professional development and training. Skills development is a top priority for most governments in developing countries. There is a huge gap between the qualifications people have and the skills required by the labor market. MOOCs could provide the scale of opportunity that is required to reach the millions for training, and retraining for the skills required.
MOOCs have major implications for both campus-based and open and distance learning institutions, for both secondary and post-secondary levels, and for lifelong learning opportunities. The present model is institution-based, teacher-centric and mostly available in English. The developing world could make this more learner-centric, offer MOOCs in various languages (Khan Academy mathematics offered in Urdu in Pakistan), and find a niche for their areas of expertise—for example, a university in Malawi offering an authoritative course on malaria.
My organization, The Commonwealth of Learning (COL) is offering a MOOC for Development (MOOC4D) on ‘Mobiles for Development’ in collaboration with the IIT, Kanpur in India. Those who complete the course will receive a joint certificate from the IIT and COL.
The world will need to create four new universities to cater to 30,000 new students each week and to accommodate children who will reach enrollment age by 2025 (go.nature.com/mjuzhu). Given the shrinking resources in developing countries, MOOCs provide a real opportunity to improve access to quality education. Carpe diem!