Dawn of the MOOCs, Or Were Massive Online Open Courses Ever Undead?

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Are Massive Online Open Courses another species of EdTech zombie?

WIRIS

The instant popularity of MOOCs made them prey of high expectations early on. Then the inevitable downfall came. It did not help that the education rockstars betted on them with such confidence. But after the shrink or folding of Coursera, EdX and the likes, key questions abound. Either MOOCs are fundamentally ineffective. Or they are the misunderstood solution for a problem to which they are yet unmatched.

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In a way, it is all on the eye of the beholder. Which includes the way academics scrutinize them. Completion rates are MOOCs loudest shortfall. This is the key criticism raised by MIT‘s Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente in a popular review released lately (paywalled).

But what if response rates in the single digits do not count as low? People with digital business acumen may agree most of all. Although everyone learning should appreciate how education is a thread of strategies and desirable outcomes, each one adding to a larger end.

Another review, by researchers form George Mason and the Urban Institute, takes a broader, more benign approach. Academic skepticism remains, but MOOCs are the staple in the fast-growing online education segment. And while the data does not answer the question directly, there is evidence to suggest MOOCs do bring awareness and serve as a bridge of sorts to people who would otherwise never experience any aspect of a top-ranked university class. With one key caveat: It is almost impossible to attribute this to MOOCs alone. It is arguable that without MOOCs and MOOC platforms, the Internet has still made great contributions in this direction.

For better of worse, MOOC are still alive. Their most popular suppliers have shown it’s no easy business. But they haven’t written them off yet. Furthermore, new platforms keep showing up. Some of them have innovative takes, although the perfect MOOC platform, if it’s feasible, it’s still not with us yet.

Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente do mention some risks. So take note before your next MOOC launch. Most MOOCs today do not address some disadvantages that marginalized learners face. This alone could explain large part of the churning problem, which affects all education. As a result, MOOC do not increase equal access to knowledge and competencies. The disadvantages could be as clear as lack of devices and connectivity. Or more subtle. The conventions used by the average teacher on an average academic course can be hard to grasp by someone who has never set foot in a university classroom. They can even put them off entirely.

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Then there’s the Freemium conundrum. If done improperly, free versions of your product will attract people with no interest of ever becoming paying customers.

MOOC is a technology. Which means it is constantly evolving. But evolution does not always mean progress. Resorting to ad-based or Freemium models, while understandable, is not innovative in itself. Better knitted interactivity, a well-crafted, context-aware gamification approach; and better analytics for the learner about their own process, are interesting developments.

There could be people who still believe in MOOCs, with reframed expectations. If they are serious about them, they should bring new innovations to the field. Which means they are worth watching. A very much not exhaustive list includes:

  • MOOCs as a branding strategy in the global learning sphere. Stay tuned for MOOCs from Chinese Universities keen to prove they can deliver on world-class quality, at scale.
  • Medical MOOCs are one of the most active segments of both implementation and academic evaluation. Not all this learning is transferable to other contexts, but key parts of it is. Namely, the ability to quickly enhance skills related to high-stakes situations.
  • Simulations are already a staple of online learning, but they remain limited in scope and applicability. AR and VR, once again, remain at the forefront of the promise about bridging this gap.

If you are looking into MOOCs as a business, consider the following:

  • It’s a numbers game. No surprise here. But you can play a number of games with your MOOC.
  • Do you want to showcase expertise for your value-added solutions? Here you can afford higher churning, and a more niche approach. We are following niche MOOC providers including Kadenze (“STEAM” subjects), MEDSKL (Medicine) and something only Hong Kong could pioneer: The first FinTech MOOC. (In Coursera, but still interesting.)
  • Are your MOOCs the products themselves? You might want to make use of nudges a little more. If you balance educational and commercial notifications, students would find your nagging more understandable.

At the end of the day, the problem is always one: To deliver value. There are many reasons why students do not finish courses. But even if they do not, they should come away with the highest regard towards your offering.

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We will continue to keep track of the constant, if not always flawless research in MOOCs.


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