This paper is a sequel to the White Paper: MOOCs Are on the Move, first published in January 2013. The purpose of this paper is to observe the growth and impact the concept of MOOCs have had over the past year as well as some key issues and emerging trends. This paper comes with a qualifier: the growth of MOOCs continues to be exponential and as soon as an article or paper is published about MOOCs it can often be out-of-date within a matter of weeks or even days.
What are MOOCs
Although awareness of the term MOOCs has grown significantly during the past year, there are now different forms and variations of MOOCs. The term MOOCs comes from the original concept of Massive Open Online Courses and which mainly applies to short courses offered by universities and higher education providers. MOOCs aggregators offer a range of free online courses covering an increasing number of topics delivered by qualified lecturers from some of the most well-known universities in the world. A key aspect of MOOCs is the access they provide to quality learning and development courses for virtually everyone, anytime, anywhere in the world with internet access.
Over the past year awareness of MOOCs and participation in courses has grown significantly. This is reflected in the example of one of the largest MOOC aggregators Coursera, which in November 2012 had 1.9 million Courserians, or registered students. By November 2013 this had grown to 5.5 million Courserians, representing an average growth rate of 9,860 people registering as students per day, up from 8,100 per day a year earlier.
Coursera (www.coursera.org) is still the biggest MOOC platform providing 530 different courses, up from 212 a year before. As well, the number of university and institutional partners has trebled from 33 to 107, with the majority being well-known and highly regarded universities. As mentioned above, Coursera now has 5.5 million students from 190 countries and they are taught by 730 professors/course instructors. The main types of courses students register for on Coursera are computer sciences, 41%, humanities 17% and business and management 15%
Being the biggest MOOCs aggregator, Coursera is also trying to maintain this position by being the MOOCs innovator. It is currently developing a network of learning hubs in such locations as Chennai, Helsinki, Phnom Penh, Prague, Shanghai, Moscow and Seoul to provide its students with a blended learning model that combines selected online MOOCs with face-to-face sessions with local tutors and interactions with other students. The learning hubs, mainly in developing countries, will allow students without computers to access the MOOCs offered through Coursera, thereby expanding according to their principle of providing accessible education to interested students anywhere. This is also supported by a limited number of MOOCs available in Chinese, Italian, Spanish, German and French.
Udacity (www.udacity.com) has a niche offering of approximately 30 computer science and mathematics courses with a range of topics from beginner courses to intermediate and advanced courses and feature a learning-by-doing approach. As students complete all the requirements of their course they receive a certificate of completion.
EdX (www.edx.org) owned by the prestigious academic institutions Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), draws content from a selection of their highly regarded courses. The consortium has grown during the past year to 30 university partners that are among the most highly regarded in their regions. The 94 courses now offered reflect those of more traditional universities and include biology, philosophy, physics, science, history, music, engineering, chemistry, economics and finance.
In September Edx announced a partnership with Google to develop MOOC.org, which is proposed to launch in mid-2014 as a site that will enable teachers, businesses and anybody else with an interest in learning and development or a passion for a topic to create their own digital course and have it hosted and listed as a course on the site.
Google has demonstrated an interest in education over a number of years and the partnership with Edx seems a logical progression that reflects many of Google’s grounding principles of openness and creating a platform that facilitates networks and enables people to collaborate. This development will be supported by Google’s other resources including Google Play for Education, Google Apps for Education as well as Education YouTube.
Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) is a MOOC platform originally providing courses for young learners from kindergarten to Year 12 with courses centred on mathematics and science: biology, chemistry and physics, as well as some elements of economics and history. Over the past year Khan Academy has expanded its range and level of courses to attract young leaners, as well as teachers, parents and anybody with an interest in a mathematics or science subject. Given the breadth of study levels, Khan Academy recently introduced a learning dashboard hub for their ‘world of maths’ for students to answer a series of online questions to ascertain what they know, gaps in their knowledge and where to start their learning at the level most appropriate for them. Khan Academy also provides electronic badges that reward each student’s achievements and students can analyse their learning records to identify what they have learnt and their learning performance.
FutureLearn (www.futurelearn.com) is the first United Kingdom-led MOOCs aggregator and the newest major player having launched in September 2013 with an initial trial of 20 quality courses consistent with their theme of “inspiring learning for life.” FutureLearn is owned by The Open University in partnership with 20 prestigious UK and international universities as well as the British Council, British Library and British Museum.
FutureLearn is already exploring opportunities for generating revenue from its free courses by allowing students to purchase a Certificate of Participation once they complete key elements of a particular MOOC. Students will also be able to obtain a Statement of Attainment for certain courses after paying to sit an invigilated exam at selected physical locations around the world. In order to sit for the exam students will need to provide two forms of identification that match with their student registration information. The Statement of Attainment will show the student’s name, course title, the name and logo of the university that delivered the course, the number of study hours per week required for the course and the actual percentage score the student achieved in the exam. At this stage, the Statement of Attainment will have no formal recognition by universities but it can be used as evidence by a student of continuing professional development and with potential employers to demonstrate their understanding of a particular topic.
Alison (www.alison.com) was launched from Ireland in 2007 and began delivering free, open online courses before the term ‘MOOC’ came into existence. Unlike most MOOC aggregators, Alison began generating revenue from launch by providing the online courses free but charging for extras, such as certificates and diplomas, as well as income from advertising links on the site.
Alison currently offers over 590 predominately vocational courses across certificate and diploma levels in ten languages. The certificate level courses require 1–2 hours study while the more rigorous diploma courses require 9–11 hours study. In particular, Alison allows the student to pace their own
learning with no time limit on completing a course. To meet the requirements for a certificate, a student must complete all the modules in a course and achieve at least 80% in the assessment, which can be taken multiple times, in order to purchase their certificate. An important feature of the Alison
testing facility is the option for an employer or recruiter to login to the site and have a student undertake a short quiz to test the knowledge of a student and the validity of their certificate.
Major Developments in MOOCs During The Past 12 Months
Rapid Increase in the Number of MOOCs
The obvious trend during the past year has been the number of MOOCs now available, both with the increase in the number of courses offered by established MOOC aggregators as well as the number of new aggregators. Instead of working through a MOOC aggregator some universities have started piloting their own MOOCs during the past year offering selected open courses for people to undertake as a taste of higher education or a particular topic. Some universities have also progressed to the stage of offering students the option to pay for online support from a lecturer and the possibility of sitting for an invigilated exam. Students who achieve a prescribed pass level in the exam can receive partial credit for a subject when they enrol in a degree program with that university.
In addition, many high profile and elite universities are now offering their standard courses as open courses where people can watch the standard lectures online and access course slides and materials. To achieve the formal qualification people need to apply, meet the entry criteria, enrol with the respective universities, pay the program fees and satisfactorily complete all the assessment requirements associated with each course.
How to Choose a MOOC
Given the rapid increase in the number of MOOCs available, a new challenge is finding the right MOOC to suit an individual’s learning aspirations, timing and content relevance. This has led to the launch of MOOC List (www.mooc-list.com) which claims to offer a complete list of all available MOOCs by category, university/entity, course length and estimated effort required to undertake the course. Having decided on a potential MOOC, it is possible to obtain further insight by using another initiative called CourseTalk (www.coursetalk.org) to check evaluations and ratings by students who have completed that course.
While English is the traditional language of the internet, a number of MOOC aggregators, including Coursera and EdX are starting to offer some courses in a range of languages, particularly Chinese and French. As well, the first MOOC platform for the Arab world, called Edraak, is currently under development using the Open EdX platform.
Security and Validating Students
There has been a significant focus on security and validation of students registering for MOOCs. Validation becomes an issue once a student wishes to receive certification for their participation and assessment in a MOOC and it becomes an even greater issue once a student wants to sit for an exam that has credit potential.
As Coursera has received 10 million assignments since its launch in April 2012, developing a more effective system for validating students and their assessment was a priority. In January 2013 Coursera launched the Signature Track program as a means of authenticating students and issuing validated
certificates, for a fee. Students complete an identify validation process including photograph verification and keystroke monitoring, which records a student’s typing pattern and rhythm as a biometric style of security. As students login for an exam they type a short phrase that is matched against those on their registration records.
MOOCs Assignments for Credit
While the majority of MOOCs are not recognised by universities for credit toward degree programs, there have been some developments in this area during the past year.
The American Council on Adult Education (ACE) has been investigating the possibility of MOOCs being approved for credit in a pilot with five courses offered through Coursera. While the five courses have been approved for academic credit, the approval is based on the structure and content of the courses and not on the learning outcomes. As universities have the authority to self-accredit programs and courses, they also have the discretion to determine whether they will recognise certain MOOCs and to what extent they might provide some form of credit towards a degree program. Currently, most universities are still observing the development of MOOCs without any commitment to providing credit toward formal degree programs.
However, some universities have started offering MOOCs that are units from courses of selected degree programs. Students completing the MOOC have the option of sitting for an invigilated exam and the results can provide partial credit toward a university degree course.
Respected higher education institution Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States has announced plans to offer a Master’s degree in computer science through MOOCs at a fraction of the cost of the on-campus costs. The course will be like a normal MOOC with content and materials accessible for free to anybody who registers for the program. Students who enrol in the MOOC-based degree program will pay about 20% of the normal fees and will sit for formal exams as well have access to tutors and other support services. (The New York Times).
Some MOOCs become SPOCs
Another development of MOOCs is SPOCs - Small Private Online Courses. Harvard University is a leader in this area and it could be a possible next step for students who complete a MOOC. People receive a taste of a particular topic or study area in a MOOC and if they want to go the next step they can participate in a SPOC. In choosing to take the next step, students are more likely to be willing to pay a fee to participate in a course that features limited class size, provides more customised tuition and offers assessed assignments that can be used as credit toward selected formal programs.
The SPOCs still incorporate many of the features of MOOCs: online, flexible accessibility for those enrolled in the course and a mix of interested participants from diverse industries and backgrounds around the world. This diverse mix with a smaller select group of participants can add to the richness of online discussions, interactions and experiences that enables participants to learn from each other.
Criticism of Low Completion Rates for MOOCs
There have been numerous articles about the low completion rates by students in MOOCs, which generally range from about 4% up to 10% of total students registered for a course. However, the reporting of the low number of completions is distorted as up to 50% of people registered for a course never watch the first video module, so they don’t actually commence the course but are included in the numbers as not completing. Most universities and higher education institutions allow students to attend the first one-to-two sessions of a course with the flexibility to withdraw before a specified census date without being included in the class numbers or incurring any grade or financial penalties.
This approach acknowledges that students may withdraw from a course due to workload, clashes with other subject timetables, work commitments, family reasons and changes in personal circumstances.
A more realistic assessment of the low completion rate would be to exclude everybody who has registered for a MOOC and never watched the first video module or until they begin the first online self-assessment test as this would better reflect those who seriously intend to undertake the course. Some people register for a course out of curiosity and once the video commences they have a better understanding of the topic to make an informed decision to continue with the course.
Research on the Role and Future of MOOCs
One significant development of the past year is the move to undertake more formal research on the role of MOOCs, the importance and contribution of MOOCs and possible future scenarios for MOOCs. This reflects the growing interest in MOOCs and the need to progress beyond the continual opinion- based articles discussing latest developments and ongoing criticisms of MOOCs compared to traditional university courses.
The MOOC Research Initiative was launched in August 2013 with the purpose of exploring the potential for MOOCs to extend access to postsecondary credentials through more personalised and more affordable pathways. The MOOC Research Institute is funded by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and currently has 28 MOOC research projects underway.
Given the rapid growth in the number and variety of MOOCs during the past year and the fact many universities are formally acknowledging their existence and the potential to create pathways for lifelong and continuing learning, MOOCs are more than just a fad. However, their primary role is an introduction or taste of higher education or a specific topic.
For students, the opportunity to access and undertake a MOOC on almost any subject for free gives them a taste for a particular topic that could lead to further study and possible career opportunities.
For universities and higher education institutions MOOCs are a marketing opportunity to promote the university and selected courses and programs. Exploring the potential to provide partial credit towards certain degree courses enables universities to attract a broader range of students as well as make enrolment offers to students that demonstrate commitment and successful outcomes from MOOCs.
For employers, with the increasing number of MOOCs offering certificates of participation and completion that can be validated, there is the opportunity to identify potential employees with knowledge and understanding of particular topics as well as a personal commitment to their ongoing professional development. In addition, employers can utilise MOOCs to tailor professional development for each employee to develop their knowledge, skills and capability according to the evolving needs of the organisation.
About the Author
Dr Lindsay Ryan is Director of Corporate Education Advisers. Lindsay is a strategic thinker in organisational learning and development that enables organisations to develop their capability and capacity. Utilising leading-edge research, Lindsay assists organisations adopt a strategic approach to employee training and development to ensure all corporate education and training aligns with the organisation’s goals and strategic direction. Based in Adelaide, Australia, Lindsay’s work is highly regarded internationally and he is also Visiting Fellow in Corporate Education with Birmingham City Business School in the United Kingdom. For further information: firstname.lastname@example.org