Will SOOCs eat MOOCs for breakfast?

Amar Kumar
Amar Kumar
18 Jun 14

Cartoon: Dave Blazek

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).

The problem

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.

The evolution

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.

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  1. Or maybe, you want to give everybody a chance, and deserve the “Open”

    .. instead of limiting entry, you can both be open and advanced by designing a MOOC with a choice of tracks : that what we do in the project management MOOC

    Stats for edition #3
    enrolled : 11827
    active : 5899
    basic track completion : 2222
    advanced track completion : 471
    basic and advanced university certicate : 246
    team project track completion : 39

    we also offer 7 optional modules : risk management, entrepreneurship..

    stats : http://goo.gl/StCLX9

  2. Besides an entrance exam or existing relevant credential, perhaps MOOCs could also act as precursor to SOOCs such that passing say, Wharton’s “Introduction to Marketing” at distinction level, would provide entry onto the next level up — the Marketing 201 SOOC.

    • David – great suggestion! MOOCs can and should serve as an entry point. Today, we sign up for college courses and pay registration fees without really knowing whether the material is useful for us, whether the professor is an effective instructor, etc.

      MOOCs could allow us to “sample” the content and instructor before “buying.” They could also serve as a filtering mechanism to ensure that students are ready for the more intense SOOC before they sign up.

      Thanks for your comment,

  3. You are arguing that: since 93% drop out of a MOOC let’s just start with the 7% which actually will complete it and charge them.
    I think the nested idea can be valid but I do not see the problem with a drop out rate of 93%, I think it is fine, if they make the course harder they probably gonna have higher drop out rate, and this seems to me a quite good selection outcome.

    • Matteo –

      On the contrary – I am arguing that the MOOCs are clearly working for the 7% and we should preserve that.

      But, we can do something more for the 93% that aren’t getting what they need. Surely we won’t be able to be all things to all people, but SOOCs could be a way to improve the experience and the learner outcomes for a subset of that 93%. What do you think?

      Thanks for your comment,

  4. Moocs is synonymous with informal learning; besides I think it is upto the consumer of the mood to decide for himself or herself how effective the course was or otherwise.

    Besides I think this is not the access that the education world is really looking for. And hence increase in access is also not a tenable argument.

    • One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about the MOOCs I have worked on is their lack of selectivity – enabling me to participate in or sample areas that I would otherwise not have previously considered. I agree with Sanjay that anyone who wants to take up the courses offered should be able to.
      Lack of completion rates may be less to do with lack of ability on the learner’s part and more around the fact that some people will have many other responsibilities and claims on their time that make it difficult to study for the hours required.
      Both the course I took have been excellent and I would thoroughly recommend a MOOC to anyone interested in learning at this level.

      • Sanjay & Kay –

        Totally agree with you both that MOOCs enable informal learning and we should encourage more of that. I read recently a quote that said “Education is what people do to you, and learning is what you do to yourself.”

        MOOCs can be an incredibly useful tool of self-discovery and allow you to learn about areas you previously knew nothing about. As a lifelong learner, nothing could be more exciting!

        Thanks for your comment.

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