The Ostrich and the Trend

A recent blog post was wrong about massive open online courses, Arshad Ahmad and Barbara Oakley write. MOOCs aren't the promised panacea, but they are neither dangerous nor dead.

October 25, 2017
 
Barbara Oakley teaching her MOOC.

John Warner’s recent blog post “MOOCs Are Dead, What’s Next? Uh-Oh” makes a lot of sense. That is, if you’re an ostrich with its head in the sand.

From our perspective, MOOCs are providing great opportunities for nontraditional learners. And they’re fueling a new worldwide movement of lifelong learning. From no MOOCs not long ago, today’s 7,000 MOOCs sweep a landscape that includes 700 universities and 60 million participants worldwide. Coursera, one of the leading MOOC providers, just raised $64 million for an overall $800 million valuation, putting it in “unicorn territory” of $1 billion. Grow with Google recently invested $1 billion to provide digital skills, part of which will be through Coursera certificates. There are scores of other indicators of open learning that are experiencing significant growth.

How could anyone be so wrong?

In a sweeping indictment of the entire MOOC industry, Warner’s article focused on a few aspects of one company, Udacity, which ironically is breaking new ground in providing high-value, low-cost education in partnership with universities. We don’t fault the author, but rather a narrow perspective that reveals astonishing ignorance about what’s really going on.

(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to clarify the authors' arguments.)

To share our understanding of the MOOC phenomenon, here’s a bit about us. Barb is a co-instructor of Learning How to Learn, the largest, most popular MOOC of all time, with two million students. Arshad is vice provost for teaching and learning and director of McMaster University’s MacPherson Institute and the instructor for the Finance for Everyone MOOC. We are currently collaborating on a series of new MOOCs.

We are the first to admit that MOOCs are no longer the original utopian vehicle of free education for all. Modest fees have frequently, although not always, come into play. This is because online courses cost money to produce and run -- although economies of scale mean that they can be taught for much lower costs than face-to-face classroom courses. Perhaps it’s more appropriate to describe current MOOCs as massive ongoing online courses. There’s lots of innovation going on under the hood.

Critics of new innovations will inevitably look prescient most of the time. It’s hard to make successful and sustainable innovations! Ebooks, for example, were a joke for decades -- until suddenly they weren’t. If you’re reveling in lower ebook sales, take a gander at the prices. The popularity of ebooks makes most of them more expensive than paperbacks, despite their lower production costs.

MOOCs allow universities a bigger footprint in their core mission to spread learning. Look to the millions of refugees and displaced peoples in some of the world’s largest camps, or to adults with IQs of 70 or below who had previously been unable to attend college, or to students in rural Guatemala who want to learn about, say, neuroscience.

Universities had previously failed these groups. But through MOOCs, universities are giving them the education they’ve always wanted and needed. Recently, 17 institutions joined the University of Leiden by identifying MOOCs that help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Over all, MOOCs allow universities to reach an entirely new set of older, lifelong learners who are being served in ways that strengthen both academic values and the core mission of universities. It’s clear that the burgeoning MOOC movement is a healthy new venue for higher education worldwide.

From a broader context, the World Conference on Online Learning finds open learning to be a core form of course and program delivery in Canadian postsecondary education. The same is true in many other countries. As well, today’s learners are dramatically different from those in decades past. The idea that students evolve is not new. What is new are many students racking up too much debt to get a university degree. There is a compelling need for lower-cost alternatives. Also, learning with MOOCs means less time commuting, parking and navigating busy schedules and more time directly devoted to learning. MOOCs are part of the tool kit that can help to do both.

MOOCs offer tantalizing possibilities for economies of scale in college education, coupled with quality teaching and branding opportunities. This is partly why so many universities are heavily invested in MOOCs. Students at MIT who were offered the chance of “in-class” options chose the MOOC instead -- and did better in it. As Class Central notes: “Students in the online version at MIT rated the course as significantly less stressful than their on-campus classes. At Georgia Tech, based on test scores, no statistically significant differences were observed.”

As for personalized learning, edX’s MicroMasters, IBM’s badges, Udacity’s nanodegrees and Coursera’s specializations are already making a mark. We also see solid growth in adaptive learning platforms -- see, for example, the insightful Inside Higher Ed article “Could Georgia Tech Use Online to Shave Time Off Bachelor’s Degrees?

Over all, MOOCs are neither dangerous nor dead. They offer ways for students to keep their knowledge fresh as they mature and go into the work force, raise families and navigate a marketplace increasingly disrupted by technology.

It’s easy to criticize MOOCs if you’ve never created or taken one. If you’re an educator and you haven’t taken one, it’s time to jump in the water. Go ahead, look over the Class Central listings and find the most interesting MOOC you can -- either on your own subject or any topic you’ve always wanted to learn about. See if you might get some ideas to improve your day-to-day teaching, and enjoy the easy opportunity to both learn something new and up your game as an instructor. You’ll be glad you did.

Bio

Arshad Ahmad is vice provost for teaching and learning and director of McMaster University’s MacPherson Institute. Barbara Oakley is a professor of engineering at Oakland University.

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