The first Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs), Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (also known as CCK08), led by George Siemens of Athabasca University and Stephen Downes of the National Research Council, was offered in 1998.  Twenty-five tutition paying students from the University of Manitoba and over 2,200 tuition free students from the general public, participated.

By 2012, MOOCs were hot news. In 2011 and 2012, for-profit organizations, such as Udacity, edX, and Coursera, worked with universities, colleges, and other partners to launch numerous MOOCs that registered hundreds of thousands of students, and caught the imagination of many more.

Thomas Friedman, writing in the New York Times a year later, suggested:

“I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world — some computing from Stanford, some entrepreneurship from Wharton, some ethics from Brandeis, some literature from Edinburgh — paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning and the pathway to employment. There is a new world unfolding and everyone will have to adapt.”

MOOCs were the new “magic bullet” that would transform access to, and costs of, higher education and, maybe, show the way in which lifelong learning – always part of the educational dream – could become a reality.

However, there are few signs, in North America at least, of MOOCs having the transformative power that Friedman imagined.

On the opposite end of the spectrum to MOOCs are Micro Colleges, a term coined by Futurist Thomas Frey. In his view, “It’s no longer possible to project the talent needs of business and industry 5-6 years in advance, the time it takes most universities to develop a new degree program and graduate their first class. Instead, these new skill-shifts come wrapped in a very short lead-time, often as little as 3-4 months.” Micro Colleges involving immersive 2-3 month courses with less than 25 students are springing up around the U.S. on a variety of topics with over 65 just in the field of computer programming alone. More on Futurist Thomas Frey’s view on the need for Micro Colleges here in this video.

We pose five questions about what changes MOOCs might be engendering in post-secondary education and how this is enabling a new pedagogy. While answers to each question are still evolving, some preliminary observations from experience and the literature can be offered.

Question 1: Are MOOCs Changing the Way in which Students Earn Credit?

This is just starting to happen:

  • A few MOOCs have been recommended for credit by the American Council on Education’ College Credit Recommendation Service – Pre-Calculus  and Algebra, both from the University of California at Irvine; Introduction to Genetics and Evolution  from Duke University; Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach from Duke University; and Calculus: and Single Variable from the University of Pennsylvania. After completing the course, students submit to an identity verification process before sitting a special proctored online exam held after the course ends. The student’s institution then has the option of granting credit.
  • The University of the People, based in California, offers accredited undergraduate degrees in business and computer science for students using MOOCs. Tuition is free with the student paying small administrative and exam fees. The University is accredited by the US Distance Training and Education Council (DTEC).
  • The Georgia Institute of Technology  is offering a Master in Computing Science taught using MOOCs, which will cost students about $7,000. The traditional program can cost nearly $45,000 for an on-campus student.
  • In Malaysia, the government sees MOOCs as a way of increasing access, lowering costs and managing quality. Fifteen per cent of the core components of a first degree at all higher education institutes are now available by MOOC, and this will rise to 30% by 2020.
  • McGill University in Canada is offering selected MOOCs to its students as electives in its programs.
  • Not all attempts to offer credit this way have been successful – San Jose State University put its project to offer credit for MOOCs on hold given that pass rates were much lower than expected in the pilot courses, despite the availability of online mentors.
  • In most cases, students pay a nominal fee to earn credit through a proctored examination.
  • There are other similar developments and there will be more as MOOCs are increasingly assessed for credit.


Question 2: Are MOOCs Influencing the Ways Faculty Think about Online Learning?

Some of the ways MOOCs are broadening the way faculty think about online courses include:

  • MOOCs are making extensive use of short video pieces – 5-10 minutes – linked to challenging questions or web exploration. This is a different approach from text-intensive learning and, while it may demand more time for the faculty and involve more costs for the institutions, it also benefits students.  Short, precise presentations of content, followed by examples or applications, are found to provide effective learning.
  • MOOCs are encouraging the use of Open Educational Resources. MOOCs often incorporate Open Educational Resources (OER) and their inclusion has drawn attention to their potential for teaching and learning. Organizations such as the OER Commons and the OERu are benefiting from the development of MOOCs which are increasing awareness and use of OER in online courses, assignments and practice modules for blended and face-to-face students and laboratory settings.
  • MOOCs are making extensive use of peer discussion and engagement. What has surprised many is just how engaged students can become when the online course design focuses on encouraging and supporting participation. Some faculty who designed and offered MOOCS (and the students who took them) set up small groups for interchange throughout the courses. In some cases, students set these up without any frameworks from the instructors, but simply because they recognize the value of the contacts and exchange. These peer connections are being made among those taking the same course, those using this knowledge in their trade/profession and in the wider communities of practice interested in the subject matter of the course.
  • MOOCs separated those who offer content from those who provide support. In some cases, those who prepared the content for the MOOC are not those who then provide the support. Instead, this may be undertaken by other instructors or staff from the providing institution, from an institution accepting the MOOC for credit, or by a private organization offering support services at a cost. This separation of roles can be essential to supporting the vast number of students who may register for a MOOC. This shift presents an opportunity to improve not only the support students receive, but also the quality of the MOOC itself.
  • MOOCs opened up the question of peer assessment. Many MOOCs use peer assessment as the basis for evaluating student progress in a course. There are issues here – reliability of assessment (several studies have shown between 35-45% of student submissions were graded 10% higher than the staff grade), quality of feedback and so on. There are developments, such asa credibility index for peer assessment created by a professor at PennState University. This method relies on each student reviewing a ‘known-quantity’ assignment that is standard across all reviewers. Each reviewer’s score is then compared to how the instructor graded this assignment. The experience with MOOCs is part of the consideration and evaluation of peer assessment for online learning.


Question 3: Are MOOCs Having an Impact on Courses Not Taught Online?

The bulk of instruction worldwide is in classrooms and, increasingly, blended settings. MOOCs are starting to have an impact on how teaching and learning takes place there as well:

  • MOOCs are contributing to the move towards blended learning. Blended learning is becoming more common for instruction in many disciplines, featuring course delivery divided between online and face-to-face settings. MOOCs offer content and models that can be integrated into the online portions and demonstrate the potential effectiveness of online delivery of content. MOOCs encourage hesitant instructors to take the next step and start assigning more online preparatory work and activities so classrooms can be used for more engaged learning.
  • MOOCs are encouraging the more widespread use of OER in online, blended and classroom-based learning environments. Whether they are videos, text material, simulations or games, OER are becoming widely used in the classrooms. In Canada, there is an inter-provincial initiative headed by Rory McGreal at Athabasca University, who holds the UNESCO/Commonwealth of Learning Chair in OER, to develop not just OER textbooks but also OER wrap-around materials, such as quizzes and visuals, so instructors and students can get the same kinds of supports available from publishers for free.


Question 4: Are MOOCs Contributing to the Improvement of the Quality of Online Learning?

In general, it depends…

  • A critical factor is whether or not the MOOC was created by a team involving content experts, graphic designers, instructional designers, production managers and knowledge management experts. For example, the University of Alberta has such a team and its MOOCs are designed from a quality assurance perspective. When these MOOCs are compared with others, which do not have access to this expertise, the variation in quality can be evident. The history of distance education demonstrates that quality improves with access to different kinds of expertise – it is the result of a team effort.
  • Quality is improving for MOOCs. As more people enroll in MOOCs, and more are offered, those designing them learn more about how to integrate quality assurance and quality design, development and deployment. Quality is improving over time.
  • However, it remains the case that many MOOCs are poorly designed, have insufficient quality control and are not well managed at the point of delivery. This is clear from a variety of evaluation studies, such as the one by Walker and Loch.


Question 5: Are MOOCs Transforming Teaching and Learning in Post-secondary Education?

  • MOOCs are part of a movement to unbundle education. This unbundling can include separating credit recognition from instruction, and who teaches from where a person earns a credential. MOOCs are one part of this process. Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR), transfer credit, badges, competency-based assessment and OER are other components. As unbundling spreads, teaching and learning are transformed. However, it takes time.
  • Unbundling is making some strong progress in the developing world. In the new development goals now being looked at by UNESCO, NGOs, (non-governmental organizations) and IGOs (intergovernmental organizations), ALL levels of education are targeted for increased access, success, and quality. Unbundling teaching, learning and assessment is a means of achieving this.
  • China and India will likely lead in using MOOCs to transform teaching and learning in their post-secondary education sectors:
    • Development highlights in China include:
      • Tsinghua University has a team of 30 people now working on MOOC platform development and another team working on course content. They also use MOOCs from edX and Coursera in English to supplement existing programs.
      • Shanghai Jiaotong University was the first university in China to sign an agreement with Coursera, and has since put six courses on this global platform. A total of 30 courses are scheduled to be released by the end of 2014. A course called “Traditional Chinese Medicine and Medication Culture” attracted some 20,000 students from more than 38 countries in May 2014. The courses are in Chinese with English sub-titles.
      • Shanghai Jiaotong University also developed the largest and most comprehensive Chinese MOOC platform in the world. All courses on it are open and free. SJTU students register and choose courses they are interested in and earn credits.
      • Links with FutureLearn – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang signed a series of China-UK memoranda of cooperation, one of which is the Massive Open Online Course project, collaboratively launched by FutureLearn in the UK and Fudan University in China.
      • China’s Own MOOC Platform – Chinese MOOC platform was co-launched by top Chinese universities, including Peking University, Tsinghua University, Fudan University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and many others in 2013.
    • Development highlights in India include:
      • India has 15 open universities, which serve over 11 million students annually.
      • India has huge participation on existing MOOC platformsOf the 1.9 million learners on edX, 15% come from India; of Coursera’s 6.7 million learners, 19% are from India – between these two that is over 1.5 million students.
      • edX has partners in India – Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay partnered with edX in 2014 to offer computing science MOOCs exclusively in India. Some 35,000 students took these for credit in 2014.
      • Many platforms – Other platforms, in addition to Coursera, edX and Udacity, used in India include FutureLearn (UK), MyOpenCourses (India), ALISON (Advance Learning Interactive Systems ONline) (Ireland).


We need to continue monitoring MOOCs and their impact on pedagogy

The influence of MOOCs is spreading, impacting all aspects of pedagogy, including:

  • Design and delivery of courses;
  • Student support;
  • Engagement and interaction;
  • Assessment and accreditation;
  • Use of open educational resources; and
  • Integration of blended learning and technology use in the classroom.

Ultimately, student learning outcomes are the critical measure of success for MOOCs, as for all of post-secondary education.


Image credit Sage Ross