FEATURE
Topic: 

The globalisation of education

Linden Harris discusses the rising popularity of 'Massive Open Online Courses' and how they could change higher education on a global scale

Education around the world is undergoing big changes. One of the biggest of these even carries the word ‘massive’ as part of its name. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – called ‘massive’ because of the great size of their potential audiences – provide online teaching, often from top universities and often free, to users around the world.

Such courses have been around for about five years but they have seen major growth over the past year or so, with the emergence of several well-financed providers that are associated with top universities. The biggest names in this area today are Coursera, Udacity and edX.

Their high-profile courses, with partners from the likes of Stanford, Harvard and Duke Universities in the USA, have seen students sign up in their tens or even hundreds of thousands in some cases.

The emergence of MOOCs has come as higher-education students are feeling the squeeze of rising tuition fees and economic uncertainty, in parallel with the advancement of technology to a level where online courses can begin to provide a real alternative to face-to-face teaching. The courses typically provide discussion forums and other tools to promote dialogue and debate, alongside traditional teaching resources such as reading materials and videos.

Mumbai-based INASP associate Ravi Murugesan noted in a recent blog post for the development organisation: ‘The short videos used in MOOCs are… not anything like the videos of classroom lectures that have existed for quite some time. A 40-minute lecture can be boring even when you’re sitting in the classroom. But the videos in many MOOCs are made only for those MOOCs. They’re not by-products of classroom courses.’

He went on to say: ‘I live in India, and I’m particularly interested in how MOOCs can supplement higher education in developing countries instead of being seen as a massive threat or, on the other extreme, met with apathy or disdain.’

As analyst firm Outsell observed in a 2013 report on MOOCs: ‘The open nature is the key selling point of MOOCs – the entry criteria of traditional institutions impose strict demands that, with elite institutions, make them very expensive and difficult to get into. The mission of some MOOC providers, edX in particular, is essentially philanthropic in nature, opening up courses to students who otherwise would be unable to afford the institution, or would be unable to attend because they are not sufficiently qualified, or live in another country.’

Currently, major MOOC providers are predominantly based in North America. However, the students taking MOOCs are based all over in the world. Research by Outsell indicated that Coursera, for example, had students registered in 196 countries by August 2012. The highest proportions were in the USA (38.5 per cent), Brazil (5.9 per cent), India (5.2 per cent), China (4.1 per cent), Canada (4.1 per cent), and the UK (4.0 per cent).

The research revealed a similar geographical breakdown at Udacity.

A major initiative announced recently in Europe promises to bring another significant player into this space too. The European Commission is supporting the launch of the first pan-European MOOCs, which include partners – mostly from open universities – in 11 countries. Initially, around 40 courses, covering a wide variety of subjects, will be available free of charge and in 12 different languages through the OpenupEd initiative.

MOOCs and publishers

It is still early days for MOOCs. However, there is potential for significant revenue generation and several possible business models. And this potential is also of interest to content providers in the education space.

‘Several of the major content and solutions providers to the higher education market have partnered with MOOC providers to explore whether opportunities exist for new business development,’ observed Outsell in its recent report.

An example of this is Cengage Learning, which is providing students on edX’s course PHW207x: Health in Numbers, taught by Marcello Pagano of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, with free access to its online version of the course textbook, Principles of Biostatistics, 2nd Edition, by Pagano and Kimberlee Gauvreau.

Another example is Elsevier, which is providing students on edX’s course 6.002X: Circuits and Electronics with free access to an online version of the course textbook, Foundations of Analog and Digital Electronic Circuits, written by edX president Anant Agarwal and Jeffrey Lang.

In the past few weeks there has been another significant step in this direction with the announcement from Coursera of a partnership with five major publishers. The partners – Cengage Learning, Macmillan Higher Education, Oxford University Press, SAGE, and Wiley – will join Coursera in a pilot programme to expand the availability of content and resources. In the pilot, the education publishers will offer versions of their e-textbooks to Coursera students, at no cost, for the duration of the course.

According to the company, ‘the importance of rigorously-developed pedagogical resources to learning outcomes has been well documented, and [this] announcement will link Coursera’s content to this enhanced learning process’.

There are expected to be benefits for the publishers involved too. In addition to gaining insight into worldwide usage data, they will be able sell full versions of their e-textbooks to students for continued personal learning.

‘By collaborating with publishers, we are able to provide access to some of the world’s best resources to Coursera students, supporting our goal of learning without limits,’ said Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, when the announcement was made.

Outsell made a similar observation in its report. The report authors said: ‘The increase in the size of the MOOC student audience, even if the majority are just observers in the online community, opens up the market for higher education content far more broadly than ever before.’

An interesting feature of MOOCs in contrast to traditional higher-education teaching is the dropout rate. It’s not uncommon for just a few per cent of initial registrants to finish a course. However, this dropout rate is not considered a big problem because, unlike a traditional institution, the MOOC provider does not aim to have all students achieving a pass grade. Indeed, the high dropout rate may be a reflection of the high level of the courses and underline their nature as challenging courses run by world-class universities.

Course credits

One area where MOOCs could be disruptive to traditional higher education is in the area of accreditation. To date, MOOCs have generally not been accredited – but some providers are moving towards offering college credits for some courses.

In some cases they plan to charge for this accreditation. The potential threat comes from the fact that this will be at a much lower cost to students than if they were attending a traditional institution.

Outsell said in its report: ‘To be successful, MOOCs need high-quality instructors, a robust pedagogical model for delivering learning in an online environment, and the ability to offer course credits. MOOC students may well favour online courses from more prestigious brand-name institutions.’

There are plenty of such institutions willing to be involved. The latest news of publisher tie-ups and pan-European initiatives mean that the term ‘MOOC’ is likely to be an even bigger topic in 2013 and 2014 than it was in 2012.

Linden Harris is director of publishing at Cengage Learning EMEA

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