Debunking the MOOC myth

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With hype waning for MOOCs and the backlash in full swing, what does the post-MOOC environment look like for Higher Education? Simon Linacre explores an increasingly complicated future of teaching, learning and research

If 2012 was the year of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course), according to the New York Times, then perhaps 2015 will be the year of VUCA. With its origins in the military, a world dominated by VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) is a much more appropriate – if just as ugly – acronym to summarise the current higher-education landscape.

As with MOOCs however, a convenient acronym to use as a pigeon-hole will not be of great comfort for university administrators wrestling with the increasing complexity of the environment they find themselves in. Front covers such as that of The Economist that declare ‘Creative destruction: Reinventing the university’ (June 28th-July 4th, 2014) will hardly help the nerves of those responsible for the development of higher-education institutions (HEIs).

What makes the VUCA problem more acute for university leaders is that, while they are more than aware of recent trends and pace of change in educational technology and pedagogy in the last 12 months, the challenge is bridging the gap between the cutting edge and many academic practices. In the last year the higher education space has seen developments such as the launch of FutureLearn in the UK backed by a number of British and international universities, and gradual adaptation of MOOCs as part of established university programmes. One of the most high-profile is the course offered at Georgia Institute of Technology, where students can study for a Masters in Computer Science for just $6,600 (

However, the hype has subsided from its peak in 2012-2013, as noted by Australian academic Jonathan Tapson, who refers to the slowdown in commentary on MOOCs and growing criticism from some communities in terms of the Gartner hype cycle (Jonathan Tapson (2013), ‘MOOCs and the Gartner Hype Cycle: a very slow tsunami’,

According to the hype cycle model, MOOCs should now be exiting the ‘trough of disillusionment’ and entering a period of ‘enlightenment’ as second-generation products and services come onto the market and best practice is established. In terms of MOOCs, collaborative ventures such as the programme at Georgia Tech may be indicative, involving platform provider Udacity and corporate AT&T as partners.

Just as important as this collaboration with a university for an accredited course is the turnaround in strategy from Udacity at the end of 2013, when it started to push towards more commercial opportunities. Following the money is regarded by many as the antipathy to the education for all idea, however as universities assess their own e-learning capabilities, innovation will come in hybrid pedagogies in the space between MOOCs for hundreds of thousands of students, and the traditional face-to-face courses for just a few dozen. This also fits with many universities’ stated aims of widening participation and access of students internationally.

But these dynamics require much greater flex from legendarily sloth-like HEIs. If the essence of a university has not changed since Ancient Greece, and key drivers are hardly any more modern, expecting academics to change habits of a lifetime so swiftly is optimistic at best. An example that illustrates this can be observed for online tutorials. Rich data from MOOCs has shown the time most students are engaged is Sunday evening, and so this would be the best time for discussion forums with tutors to take place. Yet this is a step change for academics, who have been more used to posting to visiting times on their office doors.

A VUCA world

These varieties in the pace of change and resulting stretch are the context with which to apply the VUCA model, which should allow university leaders to better understand this increasingly complicated environment, defined by the rise of MOOCs.

In the new VUCA world, there is volatility in funding environment with the transition to Horizon 2020 grant support in Europe; international moves towards showing impact and return on investment in academic research.

There is uncertainty in emerging educational trends such as MOOCs; increased competition in education through non-university providers; and questions about how the international flow of students will impact on the ability of universities to leverage student numbers to increase revenues.

Complexity comes with the increasingly blended approach of direct funding, student funding, PPP initiatives, pan-European Horizon 2020, and knowledge transfer partnerships (KTP), while ambiguity comes with issues such as open access, metrics and ‘research impact’.

Managing organisations in these kinds of environments is of course nothing new, however the different paces of change exhibited by stakeholders in the academic research process makes the dynamic of the situation far more challenging. Often, responses to these issues result in denial, or outright defiance in the face of inevitable change. However, these responses will only further inhibit any potential solutions to the problems identified. Worse still, they will strangle any opportunities that may arise from them at birth.

Physician, heal thyself

Part of the solution may lie in academic research itself. There is currently a healthy output in academic journals that both highlight the issues under discussion, and help paint the future in terms of what some answers may look like.

For example, libraries could emerge as a key knowledge hub for MOOCs to be managed and supported. A key ally for the FutureLearn MOOC initiative in the UK is the British Library, and as a repository for information it is well placed to facilitate blended learning (Thomas Clarke, (2013) "The advance of the MOOCs (massive open online courses): The impending globalisation of business education?", Education + Training, Vol. 55 Iss: 4/5, pp.403 – 413).

The move towards MOOCs may reduce formal teaching capacity as informal learning and strategies designed to create personal learning environments faciliatate different paths to learning in higher education (Ismael Peña-López, (2013) "Heavy switchers in translearning: from formal teaching to ubiquitous learning", On the Horizon, Vol. 21 Iss: 2, pp.127 – 137).

MOOCs also herald a further shift to the globalisation of HE, particularly in certain institutions such as business schools where there is a great push towards internationalisation from stakeholders (Richard Hall, Renu Agarwal, Roy Green, (2013) "The future of management education in Australia: challenges and innovations", Education + Training, Vol. 55 Iss: 4/5, pp.348 – 369).

MOOCs offer a sustainable alternative to the large footprint of campus-based education. Quite simply, through MOOCs there is a greater opportunity to deliver more education to more people, without the environmental impact caused by travel and campus living.

Teaching and learning divergence

So what might the VUCA world for HEIs actually look like? One scenario is as follows: increased attention to RoI and impact of research leads to a greater concentration at top-ranked universities; at the same time, research activity is reduced at second and third tier institutions, while student numbers become more dispersed as they utilise MOOCs and other elearning provisions; increased dissemination through open-access mandates and global learning portals democritises knowledge more widely.

All these factors combine to allow a huge expansion of learning activities, but they move away from the traditional campus-based format. While top universities still carry out research and lower-ranked institutions focus on localised and online provision, there is a ‘squeezed middle’ left to struggle as teaching, learning and research activities diverge.

Partner or perish

One key theme evident throughout the emergence of MOOCs and new learning strategies has been the need to collaborate extensively. For example, Coursera has over 100 partner universities; FutureLearn combines universities with institutions like the British Library; and Georgia Tech is partnering with both a MOOC platform provider and corporate partner to link the verticals from learning to application.

One further partner that should be included is the publisher, who can enable knowledge sharing, learning activities, and promote the outputs of research. An example of this is the recently launched Pathway to Information Leadership.

Pathways to Information Leadership (P2IL) is a collaboration between Aberystwyth University, Emerald Group Publishing and library association ASLIB. It allows anyone interested in studying information management and leadership  to choose what and when they study, whilst providing the support and resources of a formal university qualification.

The programme offers over 30 courses designed specifically to meet the needs of those who are in the process of becoming, or aspire to be, information leaders. The programme includes: accredited eLearning courses by Aberystwyth University; options to gain Master’s levels credits for postgraduate qualifications in information leadership; continuous enrolment enabling learning to start at any time; access to course materials online on desktop and mobile devices; and support from a major information management publisher and leading association.

What will need to change to make this kind of project happen is the recognition with HE of the value of outputs other than the research article. Innovation in this regard is already happening in many different forms, with publishers such as Pearson becoming  everything in higher education from textbooks, examinations, MOOC courses to even a university in its own right. This last development is just one example of an international trends of corporates entering the HE space as providers. In a VUCA world for HE, not only is teaching and learning disrupted, but the very existence of universities themselves is put under the spotlight.

Simon Linacre is business development manager for Emerald Group Publishing Limited