EduDebate: What Future for MOOCs?

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

Lori Breslow
MIT Teaching and Learning Laboratory

Data generated by MOOC users provide clues on how to design the future of learning 

MOOCs have the potential to contribute so much to education.  But those promises are more likely to be realized if we can take advantage of their unique capabilities to strengthen teaching and learning.  Indeed, the rich and detailed data generated by MOOC users themselves provide clues that will help to design the future of learning.

For the last year, I have been working with a multidisciplinary team of researchers from MIT and Harvard to analyze the data generated by edX’s first MOOC, “Circuits and Electronics(6.002x), launched in March 2012.  edX, the consortium led by MIT and Harvard, is one of the better-known MOOC providers, and the data set generated by the course was, in fact, massive.  It encompassed the IP addresses of almost 155,000 enrolled students; clickstream data that recorded each of the 230 million interactions the students had with the platform; scores on homework assignments, labs, and exams; over 96,000 individual posts on a discussion forum; and the results of an end-of-course survey to which over 7,000 students responded.

We sought to answer the first question any instructor would ask—Who are my students?—but we also wanted to dig more deeply into the data to see if we could identify what contributed to student success in 6.002x.  We looked at the impact of the characteristics and abilities the students themselves brought to the course, and we analyzed the data for correlations between the resources students used (e.g., lecture videos, an electronic textbook, a wiki) and their persistence as well as achievement. 

The preliminary results of this research, which is still ongoing, give us some tantalizing hints into what the future of MOOCs could be.  It leads us to exciting ways instructors, designers, and developers could evolve MOOCs to pair the inherent strengths of the technology with what we know about learning.

For example, Jennifer DeBoer, a postdoc in MIT’s Teaching and Learning Laboratory (TLL), and Harvard Professor Andrew Ho did an interesting “thought experiment” as part of our study.  They selected seven 6.002x students who viewed the first lecture video of the third unit in the course and attempted the first homework problem in that same unit within two days of one another.  When they plotted the interactions of each of those students with the individual resources they used, they found students accessed resources in very different ways.  One student, for example, looked at both the video and the homework just before the homework was due—just like any typical college student might do.  Another watched the video and looked at the homework associated with Unit 3 even before the homework for Unit 2 was due.  And a third student went to both the content and homework after the deadline for the assignment had past, even although he or she wouldn’t get any credit for that work.  (The DeBoer and Ho working paper with these results can be found here.)

DeBoer and Ho’s analysis dovetails with other findings we uncovered when we looked at resource use for the entire population of students.  As educational research tells us, time on task is important, and we found the more time 6.002x students spent on homework, the more likely they were to succeed in the course.  (On the other hand, the more time they spent with the textbook, the less likely they were to do well.)  In addition, there was a mild, but significant, correlation between how many times certificate earners posted on the discussion forum and their total score in the course.  Finally, the strongest background factor that predicted student success (at least for the students who answered this question on the end-of-course survey) was whether the person worked offline with someone else, either another 6.002x student or a teacher or expert in the field.  (Our first paper from the 6.002x study can be found here.)

What might all this mean for the future of MOOCs? 

One of the unique features of the Internet, the technological foundation of MOOCs, is its ability to link both people and ideas.  Hypertext, for example, allows users to easily move from one idea to the next, and from one source of information to another.  We saw in our research that this is exactly what students do—they’re not at all obedient to the sequence of topics and activities the instructor lays out!   The technology that underlies MOOCs gives us the opportunity to think about innovative ways to link concepts, and the tools with which to do that.  

In fact, we’ve experimented with just such an approach in the Teaching and Learning Laboratory.  We’ve created a hypothetical first-year engineering curriculum with a web-based tool that lets students zoom in, out, and around topics and concepts in courses first-year students usually take.  This allows them to see how disparate ideas in various disciplines relate to one another, how abstract ideas are connected to more concrete ones, and how the mathematical skills they are learning will serve them in their future as engineers.  This approach stems from what we know about how to strengthen learning:  similar ideas presented in different contexts improve retention and transfer of knowledge.  The unique capabilities of MOOCs give us the opportunity to leverage this pedagogy as never before.

MOOCs of the future might also be able to more intelligently predict the optimum paths for students, not based on content (the focus of intelligent tutors), but, rather, according to the students’ motivation for enrolling in the MOOC in the first place.  We know from the 6.002x survey that over half the students surveyed took the course to gain specific knowledge or skills, but over a quarter enrolled for the challenge of taking an MIT course itself.  Perhaps the students who accessed 6.002x resources so differently did so because their own goals were so varied.  If so, could future MOOCs be engineered to guide students through the experience in ways that most meet their needs?

As many others have written, MOOCs promise to connect people worldwide, and we know that peer support is a critical component of student learning.  But as noted above, few students actually participate in the discussion forums.  Are there better methods to entice students to connect with each other—perhaps in ways that more closely mimic what happens on-campus?  Can MOOCs of the future move towards a fuller interactive experience, taking advantage of the diversity of users and their specific interests, expertise, and motivations for enrolling?

The remarkable thing about MOOCs is that we can learn how to improve them by mining the data they generate themselves.  Research into learning—how best to link ideas, to exploit the strength of a community, to work with students’ own motivations and goals—gives us a beginning point for best guesses about what how to design experiments and implement results.  This promises to lead us into a continuous cycle of improvement that will create a new kind of MOOC and a new kind of learning. 

Opening Up Knowledge to the World Is a Wondrous Thing

Donald Clark
Former CEO
Epic Group PLC, Technology Blogger

"The future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed” William Gibson

No sooner had MOOCs emerged they were being attacked by academe as being simplistic, pedagogically vacuous, inadequate on assessment, with lots of dropouts – a fad. Many in higher education still see them as superfluous, if not dangerous. But they’re not going away. MOOCs have, in fact, been around since the inception of the web. I spent decades delivering them into large organizations to very large audiences, often in the tens of thousands. Higher education took some time to catch up -- and when it did -- finally opening up knowledge to the world, it was a wondrous thing. To counter the negativity, what's needed is a bit of myth busting….

7 MOOC myths

MOOC myth 1: Dropouts

I'm not a dropout, I'm a dropin!
I've dropped into a number of MOOCs. Some I've liked and persevered with, others I've had my fill of after a short-time. For most, life is too short and I don't have the time, others have been awful, too slow and ponderous for words. But it's all good, that's what I expected. But I resent being universally classed as a 'dropout' and used as an excuse to dis' MOOCs.

Category mistake

Is it inappropriate to take the word ‘dropout’ from one context and stamp it upon another? With MOOCs I’d call it a ‘category mistake’, when a word is used to mean one thing (pejoratively) in the context of a long school, college or University course, then applied with the same pejorative force to a very different type of learning experience. Stopping during a MOOC is very different from dropping out school or expensive long-term degree.


Lots of people dropout from MOOCS.  So what? Lots of people stop doing lots of things. Lots of people don’t finish books but we don’t see this as a sign of intellectual failure. Lots of students don’t attend lectures and drop out in terms of attention. In fact they nearly all do. Lots of people drop out of college because the course, institution, teaching method, boredom, other opportunities, debt or academia are not for them. The future is not about locking learners into experiences like prison sentences, it’s about flexibility.

MOOCs are not failure factories

MOOCs must not be seen as failure factories. They must rise above the education models that filter and weed out learners through failure. Good MOOCs will allow you to truly go at your own pace, to stop and start, go off on an exploratory path and return again. This is what true adult learning is and should be. The future of learning is not to copy but to complement or construct new models of learning. 

Uptake not dropout

We need to look at uptake, not dropout. It’s astonishing that MOOCs exist at all, never mind the millions, and shortly many millions, who have tried them. Dropout is a highly pejorative term that comes from ‘schooling’. The ‘high school dropout’. He’s ‘dropped out of university’. It's this pathological view of education that has got us into this mess in the first place. MOOCs are NOT school.  They eschew the lecture hall. They are more about learning than teaching. MOOCs, like BOOKs, need to be seen as widely available opportunities, not compulsory attendance schooling. They need to be encouraged, not disparaged.

MOOC myth 2: They’re all the same

All MOOCs are not created equal. There are  transferMOOCs, madeMOOCs, synchMOOCs, asynchMOOCs, adaptiveMOOCs, groupMOOCs, connectivistMOOCS, gameMOOCs, miniMOOCSs. From decanted transferMOOCs, which you could describe as being on the cutting edge of tradition, to adaptive and mini-MOOCs, new models are emerging that now make this a very diverse landscape. I’ve been involved in funding an adaptive MOOC with leading-edge artificial intelligence (AI) techniques. The point of MOOCs like these is to create the future, not mimic the past.

MOOC myth 3: It’s a fad

MOOC mania seemed to come from nowhere. Faster than Facebook and here to stay. In just a year, MOOCs emerged from a unique mix of entrepreneurial spirit, a few leading US Universities, supported by not-for-profits and venture capital. It’s an ecosystem that can take an idea and support it through to a sustainable business. That’s impressive.

MOOC myth 4: Vacuous pedagogy

Vacuous compared to what? Three lectures a week and cursory feedback on essays that can take weeks to get back. Let’s not pretend that all is well with pedagogy in higher education (HE). On presentation, interaction, peer-to-peer assessment, use of social media, assignments, adaptive learning and meet-ups, MOOCs are streaking ahead. I’ve taken MOOCs that area far superior to my college courses. Note that this is just after a year or so, remember the pedagogy we see in higher education has had 1000 years to develop. MOOCs have forced institutions to rethink pedagogy in just a year or so.

MOOC myth 5: Poor assessment

Let’s face it, higher education accreditation is odd. You get a two numbers with a dot between them. What use is that? We need far more innovation on what we assess, when we assess and how we assess. MOOCs are starting to give us real answers. First, MOOCs are NOT, fundamentally, about summative assessment (that is, tests and exams). It is clear than huge numbers of learners don’t care a bit about accreditation (see 6 MOOC data from Edinburgh University – only 33% are interested in accreditation). For them, and I’m one of them, it’s not a paper chase but a learning experience. 

Then there are plenty of options here: No certification, certificate of completion, certificate of mastery, certificates of distinction, university credits, proctored online and proctored test centers. This flurry of activity in MOOCs has produced summative assessment that takes us forward in our thinking:  different degrees of certification based on demand, offers anytime assessment, anywhere exams, network of test center exams. Education is thus funded by volume certification and pushes innovation in online testing. The future of assessment will be assessment when the learner wants, where they want and in the form they want, including online. MOOCs already offer these options.

MOOC myth 6: Can’t be monetized

MOOCs aren’t all about money but money does matter. In many ways MOOCs are a response to the ever-rising costs of higher education that has led to record levels of student debt and the worry that defaults may be on the horizon. ‘Monetization’ is the wrong term, as a MOOC is an activity that needs to be seen in terms of both costs and income over time, namely its impact on your profit & loss account (don’t imagine that HE doesn’t have this). Note also that an institution could position its financial goal as an investment, aim for break-even or go for profit. Monetization is not just about profits

Here’s 20 separate monetization (cost reduction and income) strategies:

Potential income lines from not-for-profits, government, private equity and private donations, direct charges such as  student fees, materials, certification, proctored online assessment, proctored offline assessment and summer schools,. Growth through more ‹ students learning at home, overseas students, parents, alumni, adjunct revenue from recruitment, qdvertising and sponsorship, growth through brand capital, reduced capital costs and reduced faculty costs. There’s money in MOOCs, there’s also vast savings.

MOOC myth 7: All about higher education

MOOCs have a past, a lively present and a significant future. First we must get away from the idea that online courses started with higher education and MOOCs. They’ve been around for a long time and are just as likely to have a direct and indirect influence in schools, further education and lifelong learning, than higher education alone. We can’t predict the future, but together with our children, we can create it.

Nothing has more potential to lift more people out of poverty — by providing them an affordable education to get a job or improve in the job they have. Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Thomas Friedman NY Times

Some References:

See Donald Clark’s blog at:

Edinburgh Report on 6 MOOCs turns up 10 surprises (data and stats)
MOOCs: taxonomy of 8 types of MOOC
MOOCs: Who’s using MOOCs? 10 different target audiences
MOOCSs: 20 ways to monetise

MOOCs will play a vital role in developing countries

Professor Asha Kanwar
President and Chief Executive Officer
Commonwealth of Learning (COL) 

Most governments will not be able to meet education needs with conventional brick and mortar approaches

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 ( Given the shrinking resources in developing countries, MOOCs provide a real opportunity to improve access to quality education. Carpe diem!

MOOCs will ultimately play a transformational role

Stephen Downes
Senior Researcher
National Research Council of Canada 

The democratization of the MOOC cannot be underestimated

We have reached the point in the history of MOOCs where the initial excitement is waning and people are beginning to ask questions about whether MOOCs will play a useful role, much less a transformational one, into the future. This comes as record numbers of MOOCs are being offered by numerous providers MOOCs have become a worldwide phenomenon, with Britain's FutureLearn launching in beta and the first Arabic MOOCs coming online.

The criticisms surrounding MOOCs are based in fears that they will replace professors with technology, concerns that the social and personal aspects of learning will be lost, concerns about the need for MOOC participants to be self-motivated and academically ready, and concerns about the high dropout rates all MOOCs have experienced. While some early experiments in certification have been started, there is also widespread skepticism that MOOCs can provide a route to traditional academic credentials.

These criticisms, far from identifying where MOOCs will fail, offer glimpses into the future of MOOCs. For while we may agree that these are weaknesses of the current model, the fact is that the advantages of MOOCs make it more desirable to press forward with the concept, rather than abandoning it and returning to traditional online and classroom-based courses and programs.

The first advantage is accessibility. As the name 'Massive Open Online Course' suggests, MOOCs are available to everyone, requiring only an Internet connection (now 40 per cent of the world’s population, according to the International Telecommunications Union). Even if certification is not available, the fact that participants do not need to pay tuition makes them especially attractive to people outside the traditional university audience. As evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of people registering for courses like Stanford AI (artificial intelligence), there is significant demand for open access to higher education content.

As important to accessibility is flexibility. People can, for the most part, pick their own time to study. Even if students miss the live online presentations, they can view the recorded archive. They can study the material at their own pace, and even if they fall behind, they can continue to access content, work through the examples and assignments, and continue to learn from the course.

The community that develops around MOOC courses has made MOOCs attractive to students worldwide. In 'connectivist' MOOCs, such as those offered by George Siemens and myself, this interactive community is actively encouraged and content contributed to such diverse sites as Blogger, Tumblr, Moodle forums and Twitter feeds is harvested and shared with course participants. In the case of video-lecture based MOOCs, such as those offered by Coursera, communities have developed outside the official channels, as participants meet with each other and discuss the course in their own space.

This democratization of the MOOC cannot be underestimated. It represents a transition in the management of learning from a centrally administered service, such as offered by a corporation or university, to a distributed and essentially unmanaged form of cooperation on the part of students themselves.

And this is what points to the most important element in the future of MOOCs. Today MOOCs are hosted by Coursera or Udacity are  based at universities. But over time, they will develop their own presence and their own existence. Take, for example, the Stanford AI course, or the Introduction to Complexity course offered by Melanie Mitchell. While at the moment they are strongly associated with an individual university, over time on sites like Complexity Explorer they will forge their own identity, separating themselves from their university origin.

What will happen in such a scenario is that one course may be offered by several universities. There is no reason why the complexity course could not be shared by MIT, Stanford and the University of Calgary, with local services (such as tutorials, labs and social events) being provided by host institutions, while the content, community and activities are based in the online environment. In the past I have referred to this as the 'online-host provider framework'.

Some pundits have begun to discuss the 'flipped MOOCs', wherein the online MOOC offering is 'wrapped' by the trappings of a traditional course. But this should not be confused with the host-provider framework, where the academic content is defined and provided exclusively by the MOOC providers. Participants will obtain certification from the MOOC provider, which may be converted into local credentials - but the local credentials will be viewed skeptically if not based in the course certificate.

In any case, over time the importance of credentials and certificates will decline. What MOOCs offer is a place and a mechanism whereby individual students can participate in activities and events related to a discipline, work through challenges posed by the course with other members of the community in an online environment accessible worldwide (much like the way open source software works today). These activities leave digital traces, and future employers will not look so much at credentials as they will depend on intelligent software which harvests these traces and constructs a digital profile of prospective employees.

This changes the debate regarding participation and completion rates and even motivation and academic skills. Instead of being requirements imposed by providers on students (usually as a means of assessment for credentials) they will become optional, something students can use to advance their own profile, but not in any way essential aspects of a course. Again, consider the case of open source software (OSS) - a person can contribute as much or as little as they wish, and there's no sense to be made of OSS 'completion rates' or any such thing.

When we view MOOCs as a means of obtaining an education, and establishing a track record, rather than as courses leading to credentials, our original hesitation about the perceived weaknesses of MOOCs can be overcome. The democratization of learning will lead to large and small online courses provided by a range or providers - from major universities to governments to oil companies - but it will be students themselves who decide whether to participate, and whether these courses are worth their time.

Stephen Downes’ blog may be found here: