Massive possibilities

They’ve been around for nearly a decade, but are Massive Open Online Courses still relevant? Helen Dorritt investigates…

“MOOCs are not going to take over the world and replace degrees – we realised that a few years ago.” So states Dr Demetra Katsifli, Senior Director at online learning platform Blackboard, and Dr David LeFevre from Imperial College agrees. “There was a great deal of hype surrounding MOOCs around 2012–13, and this has inevitably been followed by a backlash as online sites failed to achieve the grandiose transformation in education that some commentators were predicting.” 

The term MOOC was coined in 2008 by Dave Cormier to describe a course offered for free to the general public alongside fee-paying students. This concept grew in the next few years, and 2012 was the year that many of the big learning platforms emerged, including Coursera, edX and Udacity. MOOCs’ fall was as quick as their rise, however, and criticisms include an absence of serious pedagogy, the chaotic nature of shared online content and lack of a structured programme. 

The question, therefore, is what have MOOCs become? And are they still relevant in today’s ever-shifting education landscape?

Strength in numbers

It does seem that reports of the death of MOOCs have been greatly exaggerated. “Behind the scenes many universities are quietly and enthusiastically pursuing MOOC projects,” David explains. “These are gaining momentum as universities experience the opportunities online courses present and begin to integrate these into their traditional teaching provision.”  

For Dr Terry O’Sullivan, MOOCs Programme Director, Faculty of Business and Law at the Open University, there’s no doubt that MOOCs are here to stay. “We see them as very much part of our future, and the future of higher education worldwide,” he states. “Open Educational Resources such as MOOCs transform the internet into a pervasive learning opportunity. The fact that MOOCs are freely available at point of delivery means there’s no barrier to accessing this potentially life-changing learning, other than the need to have internet access and a connected device.” The numbers confirm this: the OU’s FutureLearn, just one of the many MOOC platforms, has had over four million sign-ups since its launch in 2013. 

One of the strengths of MOOCs is their ability for universities to use them as a shop window for their degree offering, allowing people to ‘try before they buy’. Imperial, for example, has just launched an MBA taster MOOC in partnership with edX, to provide essential skills to people who are considering signing up for the full course. 

The OU is then taking this one step further by offering MOOCs as a route to academic credit, a first in European higher education. “MOOCs have offered hundreds of thousands of learners the opportunity to gain new skills, but the recognition of this learning has been limited to certification outside higher education’s formal qualification framework,” explains Terry. “Through integrated programmes at FutureLearn, we’re pioneering a new way for learners to try out the experience of higher education without having to make an expensive commitment up front. This gradual process of gaining and paying for certificates demonstrates learning achieved, and then learners can register for an assessment module. 

It’s a much more comfortable prospect – learning in bite-sized chunks, increasing confidence, plus the prospect of academic credit recognised throughout the EU.”

This complements the rise in using MOOCs to provide continuing professional development opportunities for career progression. A look on FutureLearn shows a number of CPD courses that people can take for free, with the option to then pay for accreditation and receive a recognised certificate. This corporate use is one that both Demetra and Jean Francois Fiorina, Associate Dean at Grenoble Ecole de Management, believe to be an important growth area. 

The global nature of MOOCs is definitely another of their strengths, in both allowing people across the world to access resources – 70% of FutureLearn’s users are from outside the UK – and giving universities the opportunity to collaborate more easily with international partners. Demetra reports that Blackboard receives many enquiries from its university consumers about global collaboration, and the obvious benefit of a MOOC is that a university can easily deliver a course in its international campus or with a foreign partner institution without the need to be physically present.

The advantage of this global village approach is also that MOOCs can crowd-source information, both in an academic context and also in engaging non-traditional learners. Demetra cites an example of a MOOC hosted by Swinburne University of Technology in Australia on the subject of autism. 15,000 people in 82 countries took part in the 10-week course, designed to bring together parents, families and carers to share stories and experiences from parents and professionals. Each participant had two hours’ contact time per week, plus online sessions to discuss the material. As a result of the MOOC, the team behind it now offers a range of professional development opportunities in online and blended learning formats.

The secret to success

One of the main criticisms of MOOCs is the poor retention rate: on average only 2–3% of participants complete a course. To address this, Alberto Alemanno from HEC Paris Business School has come up with what he calls his toolbox to mitigate the drop-out rate. “The key traits of a truly useful MOOC are relevance, clarity of learning and development objectives, consistency and, finally, quality of teaching,” he details. Alberto’s approach clearly works: his recent Coursera MOOC, ‘Understanding Europe’, had a 7% retention rate in its first year. 

Alberto supported these traits in a number of ways, including consistent student contact, crowd-sourcing questions and feedback from students to ensure relevant content and displaying recognition of students’ efforts. He harnessed a variety of available technologies to provide real-time professor interaction, sent targeted emails to students to share information and feedback and encouraged peer-to-peer engagement through social media activity. This also created opportunities for collaboration between bricks-and-mortar students and MOOC students. 

It’s clear that MOOCs do and will continue to have a big role to play in
HE and FE, as well as forging more links between universities and the corporate world. “We’re in a good place right now – providers have the right expectations,” says Demetra. Alberto agrees. “Online learning is here to stay and will grow in importance. While it won’t entirely replace traditional education, it will certainly complement it.”

How have MOOCs evolved?

  • Started with big fanfare as “Game changer for Higher Education” (2012)
  • Interest dried up particularly with Universities in US (2013–14)
  • European Universities are now more active and confident about sustainability of MOOCs than US (2015)
  • Credit-bearing MOOCs are now emerging (2016)
  • Government initiatives like the Malaysian Government and EU Commission showcase that MOOCs are now seen as a tool for mass UK skilling (2016)


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