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Online learning experts question the value of MOOCs

Just four months after the UK's first MOOC provider, FutureLearn, launched its pilot courses, questions are being asked about their value and scope.

Launched by the Open University, FutureLearn offers free, open-access online programmes. But is it a sustainable business model? At a conference on January 28 organised by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, and University of London International Programmes, experts will debate how well MOOCs are performing against their early objectives, and whether they are worth the investment.

“MOOCs are not a magic bullet,” says Stephen Brown, Professor of Learning Technologies at De Montfort University, a panelist at the conference. “There was a lot of hype about how they were going to reach massive audiences and open up access to education for traditionally disadvantaged groups – but that's not happening universally."

At the same time, there was a lot of excitement about how MOOCs were going to bring down the cost of education, but they are already looking more expensive than anticipated, Professor Brown added. “Figures I've seen suggest £60,000 as an up-front development cost. That's no insignificant hurdle for universities to overcome.”

The University of Leicester’s first FutureLearn course on England in the Time of Richard III attracted over 10,000 students, with a third completing the programme. Nevertheless, the University is still weighing up the benefits against the costs.

“It was successful in raising our  profile,” says Jackie Dunne, Leicester's Dean of Distance Education. “The big question is whether there will be long-term tangible benefits, such as MOOC learners converting onto fee-paying programmes. It's too early for us to know, so we are yet to make a judgement on whether MOOCs are worth the money.”

According to Mike Sharples, Professor of Educational Technology at the OU and Academic Lead for FutureLearn, the signs are positive. “A university only needs about ten students in 10,000 to convert onto a paid-for course for the MOOC outlay to have been recouped,” he said. It is early days, he acknowledges, but “there are learners who are transferring from FutureLearn MOOCs onto degree courses.”

This also seems to be the case at the University of London International Programmes, a partnership of 12 colleges focused on offering access-driven programmes by distance and flexible learning. Their MOOCs are run on the US-based Coursera platform and, says Tim Gore OBE, Director of Global Networks and Communities, “some learners do a MOOC and then a degree programme with us.”

Whether MOOCs are widening access to education, however, is still unclear he admits. “Up until now, they have been successful among people who have higher education qualifications and are digitally adept – who know how to manipulate social networks and are self-driven in their learning. The challenge is to bring in others,” he says.

Sharples agrees. “MOOCs need to offer a wider range of opportunities, reaching people who wouldn't normally have access to HE.” New FutureLearn courses on preparing for higher education, and one offered by the British Council on academic English, hope to achieve this.

Most agree, meanwhile, that MOOCs are helping universities develop their online capabilities. “We're learning more about technology and how pedagogic approaches can be applied online,” says Gore. Dunne believes the impact of this will be felt across the board. “MOOCs keep us at the forefront of innovation, not just for distance learners but for campus-based students as well. Both want more innovative technology to support their learning. Where we've had to be very careful is in differentiating our MOOCs from our fee- paying distance and online courses,” she says.

This potential blurring concerns Brown. “MOOCs are morphing into more familiar objects. We're seeing a move towards MOOCs that charge fees, that are combined with face-to-face teaching, and that aren't open to everybody. They're beginning to look more like vocational training courses and online degrees.” He cites a joint venture between Udacity, Georgia Tech and AT&T, which offers a Masters in computing science for $6,000 [£3,640]. “It's a MOOC only insomuch as it's being offered by Udacity, which is a MOOC company.” Coursera, meanwhile, now runs paid-for 'specialisations', offering three MOOCs in a row around a certain subject.

Whether this is an evolution for better of worse, Brown is clear that MOOCs are a much-needed stimulus for change. While the global population is expanding rapidly, creating a growing demand for learning, “the cost of a degree has increased, but graduate salaries have not in the same way. Universities can't afford to meet the increased demand for education by traditional methods, and MOOCs have stimulated a lot of interesting experimentation.”

So what next? There has already been significant MOOC tweaking and refining, with more on the horizon – but every change throws up new concerns. “What happens if you have third-party providers?,” Brown asks. “What happens if you have portfolio degrees where universities accept and accredit learning that's been run by another organisation? Or if a student has been examined by a third party that isn't necessarily a university? There are potential risks and quality issues. It becomes harder to see which components we can trust.”

But in practice, Sharples says, FutureLearn's MOOCs are raising standards rather than compromising them. “You can't get away with sloppy teaching,” he explains. “Once you pose a theory, hundreds or even thousands of people pick it apart constructively. Academics are finding this stimulating, and because they're getting rapid feedback, they can improve the course, justify their theories, and make the frameworks more robust.”

The good news is that providers are working collaboratively to maximise the potential and scope of MOOCs. “We're all learning together,” Dunne concludes. “I think the platform and the courses will only get better. The big question is, what will the evidence be to support universities investing in this in future?”


This article from HEi-know was originally published on January 27, 2014