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MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. As the name suggests, it’s a course delivered online, and is open to anyone in the world which leads to massive numbers enrolling.

The massive numbers are helped by the fact that so far, almost all MOOCs being offered are free.

Examples of MOOCs can be found at: Coursera, edX, Udacity, Class2Go, Khan Academy, Codecademy.

In this blog, I want to discuss some of the issues surrounding MOOCs. These include:

How are MOOCs delivered?

A MOOC can be delivered on a commercially available platform or on a specially built platform — the only requirement is that it is accessible from a browser.

MOOCs are typically delivered using a mixture of video, slides, internet links and handouts. Some MOOCs also have recommended texts. A popular format is to show a video of the lecturer talking through a slide show, writing on the slides to emphasise particular points (see screenshot below). These videos are usually short to allow the student to review and absorb each concept before moving on to the next one.

Screen Shot 2012-12-04 at 2.08.34 PM.png

Understanding of the course is typically assessed through multiple choice quizzes and exams that are marked by computer. Students can engage with the lecturer, their teaching assistants (TAs), other students and the class material through discussion forums. Some students even set up local study groups.

What level of course is offered through MOOCs?

Khan Academy doesn’t deliver university-level courses and it has a low-tech delivery method, but it is very popular and well organised. If you never learnt how to do algebra at school (like me), Khan Academy can help. The founder, Salman Amin Khan was inspired to teach after tutoring his nephews and realising that he neither learnt nor taught in a traditional way. His philosophy of teaching in bite-size chunks in short video clips has influenced the delivery method of many of the other MOOC platforms.

Coursera, Udacity and edX aim to deliver MOOCs at university level and are therefore probably more interesting to us here at the University of Sydney. Coursera only invites Ivy League universities to partner with it. Currently it has 33 partner universities including Berklee College of Music, Brown University, Columbia University, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Edinburgh, and — the only Australian university — the University of Melbourne.

A university also has the opportunity to deliver MOOCs from within its own infrastructure. Harvard is doing this. Blackboard, the learning management system, is also extending its online offerings to the MOOC arena, allowing universities to deliver their own MOOCs without partnering with another platform.

Who is the target market?

The typical target market for MOOCs is literally everyone. Anyone in the world with access to a computer and the internet can enrol in a course. I’m currently enrolled in a MOOC with Coursera (which is the topic of my next blog) and more than 30,000 other people, including school children, university students and retirees, are also enrolled.

There are people from all over the world taking part, with lively contingents of students from Colombia, India and the Philippines, and it is the potential for providing free quality education to the less developed parts of the world that I find really exciting.

If the target market really is everyone in the world (a claim often made but rarely accurate) then MOOCs conducted under the auspices of a university should be as much the concern of the marketing or external relations divisions of a university as the education division. A MOOC student’s experience will colour their perception of the university as a whole. The massive numbers enrolling in a course can therefore have a significant impact on a university's brand. A positive experience of a MOOC can enhance the reputation of a university while a negative could potentially damage its reputation.

The talent and commitment of the lecturer is key to a successful MOOC. Interesting and engaging lecturers who participate in the discussion forums, are invaluable assets to a university. It’s important therefore, that universities carefully consider the potential impact on their reputation when they evaluate the involvement they want to have with MOOCs.

What is the educational value of MOOCs?

Obviously this depends on how good the course is and how well it is delivered. As with all courses, it also depends on how much effort the student puts into learning.

It’s relatively easy to conduct assessments for science-based courses that have ‘objectively’ correct answers. This is done using multiple-choice quizzes and exams that are marked automatically. In most cases, after the results are published, students are allowed to discuss these quizzes and exams in the forums, and a student who has selected an incorrect answer can learn from other students where they went wrong.

Assessment of more subjective material (such as that commonly found in the humanities) is more difficult to conduct. Lecturers don’t have the time to mark thousands of essays and give feedback. Some MOOCs still use the traditional essay method of assessment, but use an innovative way of marking them. Students have to demonstrate that they understand the lecturer’s marking standards and then they are required to grade five of their peers’ work, while five peers grade their work. This method is not popular with all students, some of whom don’t like the idea of, for example, having their work graded by school children.

Another criticism levelled at MOOCs is that it’s too easy to cheat. There is no way to ensure that the person enrolled is the person undertaking the assessment. This doesn’t matter while MOOCs are being delivered for free and no recognised award is given but if MOOCs are to seriously challenge the position of higher education institutions, these issues will need to be resolved. One solution may be to deliver the MOOC online but to assess it in a traditional exam administered and invigilated locally.

Still, assessment is only one part of a course, and it is the content and delivery of the course that gives it value. From the discussions in the forums of the course I’m taking, it seems that most students who undertake a MOOC do so for the satisfaction of learning something, rather than as a means to some end. This is important to many people who like to study out of interest and who subscribe to the philosophy of lifelong learning. However, many students are still seeking more tangible benefits from successfully completing a MOOC.

Most MOOCs give a certificate of completion from the lecturer to students who fulfil the course requirements and this seems to be a major drawcard – if the discussion in the forums is any indication. This is in spite of the fact that the certificate is not from a university and does not (for the most part) allow students to demonstrate prior learning or be given credit towards a university degree.

In the future though, it’s probable that these certificates will increasingly be regarded as indications of achievement by employers or higher education institutions. However, the assessment problems need to be solved before there is widespread acceptance of these certificates.

Is there a way for universities to make money from MOOCs?

This is an interesting philosophical question. It is a fact that the massive numbers of students enrolling is due only to MOOCs being free, but some argue that the ‘massive’ part of the equation can refer to massive reach, rather than numbers. It would be interesting to know how many students apply to universities that offer online courses via Navitas and pay the full university fees.

For the most part, lecturers who conduct courses on Coursera do so out of altruism, as part of their research into online learning or for self-promotion. Most lecturers conduct these courses in addition to their work at university and need to devote considerable time and effort to deliver a good course and to respond to relevant questions and feedback from students.

It’s hard to imagine that students would be willing to pay for a MOOC course if they could get it free elsewhere. But, if the price were very low, the standards were high, the assessment criteria satisfied required standards and the student received a recognised award then there could still be large numbers of enrolments, and MOOCs could potentially be a stream of revenue for universities.

Who knows, in the future, it may even be possible to obtain a university degree delivered entirely by MOOCs, if they could be structured to that end.

Could MOOCs make brick and mortar universities redundant?

I really doubt it. Not the way that MOOCs are currently structured and delivered and certainly not in the near future. They may well influence how education is delivered however. Good examples of the pedagogy of MOOCs can be — and are being — incorporated into existing university courses as supplementary material.

Distance learning as a concept has been around for a long time now — Open University is a good example of this. It hasn’t taken business away from traditional universities.

Having the opportunity to physically interact with your lecturer or tutor and other students, as well as getting hands-on experience in your chosen field, adds a dimension that it’s just not possible to get from distance learning, in spite of all our advances in social networking. The role that universities play in developing future generations of researchers and academics is also something that MOOCs do not address.

Hyperbole aside though, it is good to see that online learning has matured to a stage that makes MOOCs possible. I think they have enormous potential to enrich the lives of people all over the world who would otherwise not have the opportunity to study. I am just one of the many thousands of MOOC students who is grateful to have the opportunity to learn something new from a well-respected expert in a medium that is engaging and easy to use.

MOOCs may not make universities redundant, but they can certainly enhance (or damage) a university’s reputation and they can provide a beneficial learning experience to everyone. I can’t think of a better example of social inclusion that could be provided by a university.

1This claim was made by a salesman from Navitas (which doesn’t actually deliver MOOCs as they are defined here) presenting at a social media conference in August 2012. See also MOOCs: End of higher ed as we know it?- MSN Money
See related blog entry I enrolled in a Coursera MOOC.