Massive Open Online Courses; Massive Hype

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are open courses disseminated freely via the Internet that have been hailed as a game-changer in the education ...

Feb 22, 2014

Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are open courses disseminated freely via the Internet that have been hailed as a game-changer in the education landscape. The New York Times dubbed 2012 as “The Year of the MOOC.” Many reputable universities have jumped on board to make their courses freely available on the Internet.
But a deeper inspection reveals a less rosy picture. According to University of Pennsylvania researchers, just about four percent of participants completed the courses they registered for, and only about half of them watched a single lecture.
The keenness of universities to be a part of this online learning revolution has not been matched by their willingness to give credit for those who complete their courses. Concerns about maintaining academic standards have made many universities cautious to grant credit. Some universities, such as the University of Maryland and the University of Central Lancashire, have started offering credit for MOOCs, but with a caveat: Credit is given only for courses that are developed by the university itself, and not by any other university. Fears of diluting their reputation might hold back more prestigious universities from following suit.
These limitations might detract the present appeal of MOOCs, but not their underlying potential. With continuous education becoming a necessity and the ballooning cost of education a key concern, MOOCs might prove to be effective solutions.

 MOOCs’ promise and potential

  The notion that one can be productive for a lifetime after learning for a concentrated period of school time is an anachronism. While a certain level of mastery is necessary to commence work, continuous learning has become imperative.
With learning being more spread out in one’s lifetime, the barriers to entry into educational institutions need be lowered — both in terms of time and financial commitments — for them to stay relevant. MOOCs therefore have become useful. With MOOCs, participants have greater access to knowledge with the convenience of dictating pace, time and venue. The cost of education is also significantly lowered. In May 2013, Georgia Tech announced plans for a MOOC master’s in Computer Science. Its cost was 7,000 USD, far lower than the average cost of 40,000 USD at a regular higher educational institution.
MOOCs are potent levellers of opportunity too. With MOOCs, one’s educational experience would not be limited to the choices that one had in school. There would be more avenues to pursue one’s intellectual passions.
However, there exists a chasm between the sobering present state of MOOCs and the exciting potential they hold. What steps can be taken to realize their potential?

The Next Step

There are two distinct problems which need to be tackled to unlock the potential of MOOCs. The first is of accreditation. The second is of low completion of courses.
Accrediting students attending MOOCs independently has to be an important priority. It serves as a quality appraisal of student and further incentivizes students to take such courses.
But given concerns about dilution of academic standards and reputation, universities are unlikely to vouch for the abilities of someone who has never set foot on their campuses. Even if they do, other universities might not recognize their accreditation.
A more practical solution would be to have a third-party international institution, like the College Board, administering proctored tests to certify MOOCs students. Currently, the College Board administers Advanced Placement exams to measure students’ understanding in various core subjects. Most colleges recognize these qualifications. Differentiating itself from the current model, this institution could test a wider range of course-specific content over a longer time framework. It could offer feedback to students, so the assessment would be another constructive step in the process and not just the culmination of learning.
Low active participation in these MOOCs is another problem that needs to be addressed. Inducing social pressure on learners could prove useful in this regard. In MOOCs, learning is almost always solitary. This is in sharp contrast to in-school learning, where learning has a social dimension to it. There is a social pressure to turn up to school, participate actively and turn in work.
To induce social pressure, participants could be broken up into different groups upon registration, and their performance could be shared along intragroup and intergroup lines. Greater knowledge of others’ performance might spur participants on to complete their work. Given that many participants join MOOCs for solely previewing the material, they could be put into these groups only upon confirmed interest to complete them. Additionally, if these groups clustered by geographic location, they would facilitate meetups to discuss course material.
Though MOOCs are a recent phenomenon, distance learning has been established for a long time. From the first textbooks that shifted learning from the teacher to students to correspondence courses offered in the 19th century and now with MOOCs, distance learning has become an increasingly compelling an option because it can now closely mimic traditional learning.
Arne Duncan, U.S. America’s Secretary of Education, stated that MOOCs have “quickly become one of the most significant catalysts of innovation in higher education.” MOOCs do have incredible potential; however, there’s a long way to go for the present-day hype to be justified.
Girri Palaniyapan is a contributing writer. Email him at
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