At this year’s EdTech Europe summit, one theme was writ large in every panel discussion: are MOOCs really the magic bullet in opening access to education? Or are they – ask it quietly – too open to be truly effective? As the MOOC hype begins to die down, a more targeted, less open approach to online courses is making its presence felt. Amar Kumar, Vice President in the Office of Pearson’s Chief Education Advisor, breaks it down for us.
Much of the conversation about MOOCs (massively-open online courses) has centred on “inputs” – how many students signed up, which platform was used, or which professors taught. While the rapid rise of MOOCs is impressive and encouraging, the data on outcomes is troubling.
Some studies show that 93% of students who sign up for a MOOC don’t complete the course. Of those who complete the course, there’s very little evidence to show that they learned what they were taught. Overall, MOOCs have largely been unsuccessful in helping people make progress in their lives (e.g., get a degree, get a new job).
Much of the blame for MOOC underperformance deserves to go to two distinct, but related, factors. First, MOOCs offer a poor learner experience compared to on-campus offerings. Many MOOCs are nothing more than online replicas of their offline courses – akin to putting the PDF of a magazine online and calling it a digital offering.
To top it off, open admissions have led to the second factor – the introduction of unwanted diversity in terms of the range of different levels and experience of learners. A biologist with 10 years of work experience could be taking the same course at the same time with the same professor as a high school student who just wants to learn more about killer whales. This “unwanted diversity” and one-size-fits-all approach makes peer-to-peer collaboration largely ineffective, leading to poor outcomes, and high dropouts.
An evolution on the idea of MOOCs is the “selectively open online course” (or SOOC) – simply, a MOOC with an entrance requirement designed to reduce the “unwanted diversity.” This could be proven competency (e.g., pass an entrance quiz), a credential (e.g., have a degree), or membership (e.g., be in the university’s alumni network). The theory is that a more uniform student body will lead to improved peer-to-peer collaboration and higher learner outcomes.
Higher quality is also likely to increase learners’ willingness to pay for an online course, which in turn will increase a university’s willingness to invest in better professors, facilities, and/or pedagogy. The Harvard Business School, long a stalwart of pedagogical innovation, has taken bold steps to build its own SOOC. The school designed the program with the intention to replicate, but not precisely copy, the much vaunted in-classroom experience. In fact, the new platform even allowed the school to improve many aspects of the program (e.g., peer feedback). They are also targeting non-core demographics to minimise the risk of cannibalisation. It will be exciting to see the outcomes data from this first set of students.
Education pundits are already predicting SOOCs will replace MOOCs. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. Similar to the way Russian dolls nest within one another, MOOCs, SOOCs, and even brick-and-mortar campuses can co-exist. In fact, universities may even find that to survive the avalanche ahead, they may have no choice but to build all three programs.
I predict that innovative universities will build MOOCs targeted at “tourists” interested in casual study (remember that high school student with an interest in killer whales?). These learners don’t mind independent study and want to move at their own pace. The university and professor will use the MOOC to experiment with new content, enhance their own brand, and drive enrolment into the SOOC or on-campus offerings.
Nested within the MOOC, the SOOC will target “explorers” who want a richer experience with instructor feedback and are willing to pay for it. Being able to charge for courses will allow the university to recover some costs and invest in better content and pedagogy. Graduates could receive credentials and become university alumni, benefiting both the university and the learners.
Finally, nested within the SOOC, the on-campus program will target “adventurers” who need greater depth, collaboration, and mentorship. Live access to peers and professors will enhance learning and students will pay far more for the experience. Universities will use profits to fund expansion, research, and other programs that enhance their brand.
To maximise the potential from this model, learners should be able to traverse within the three levels based on their needs and interests. Universities that build flexible and adaptive platforms will increase their reach, improve their outcomes, and protect a business model that’s increasingly under threat.