MOOCs – Hype or an Essential Learning Tool?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are a relatively new approach to increasing global access to higher education.  Largely free, they offer the opportunity for anyone with a computer, tablet or smartphone and internet access to take courses on a wide range of subjects from universities around the globe.  Tens, even hundreds of thousands of students can sign up for a single course, providing a wide range of discourse in discussion groups.  The New York Times went so far as to declare 2012 as the Year of the MOOC.

MOOCs offer a number of advantages:

to students:

  • No cost or low cost
  • Reduced student debt
  • Accessible at any time (asynchronous), from anywhere
  • The opportunity to take classes from prominent professors at world class institutions

to professors:

  • Offer an opportunity to create an online course with support (support from host site, eg. Coursera, edX, Udacity, etc.
  • Provide an opportunity to improve exposure, even gain fame

to institutions:

  • Promotes brand recognition to the institution
  • Potential to reduce costs due to low infrastructure requirements (no bricks and mortar classroom required)

Initially, MOOCs were viewed in a positive light for these reasons.  But as experience with MOOCs has increased some of the shine has come off of this new addition to online education.  Universities have found that MOOCs aren’t as cheap as they thought, and have not attracted the volume of students they had hoped.  Low completion rates have been observed and student demographics have shown that, instead of low income students signing up for these courses, they are largely attended by students who are financially stable and have already completed some higher education studies.  Students not already familiar with online education are often too intimidated to sign up.

Perhaps one of the best descriptions of some of the challenges to offering a MOOC is offered by Dr. Karen Head (The Hidden Cost of MOOCs), who instructed a course on Coursera.  Head observed:

  • MOOCs may only appear to have low cost
    • Production costs for videography and course design
    • Significant staff time is required for development
  • Students expect 24/7 monitoring and quick responses to their questions/comments
  • Professional fame can result in loss of privacy
  • Concerns about security, include:
    • Professors must protect their personal email address, phone number
    • Unannounced visits to campus offices may occur
    • Insurance issues
    • Do a university’s privacy policies apply to MOOC students?
    • Control of digital signatures for course certificates
  • Intellectual property concerns – who owns the course material and your digital likeness?
  • Distance (interactional, not geographical) between teacher and student is very large
  • Difficult to make changes to the course mid-way based on student feedback
  • Automated grading of student writing style and logic is difficult

Clearly there are a number of challenges to the design, development and presentation of a MOOC.  The concerns of administrators, instructors, support staff (including technical support) and students all have to be addressed.  As experience is gained in MOOC development and delivery some of these issues may be resolved.  But what about the original idea of making access to higher education ubiquitous?  Let’s consider the situation of education for Africans.

UNICEF is currently projecting that forty percent of all births will be in Africa by 2050, doubling the current population to well over two billion people.  This will place intense stress on an already underfunded and inadequate higher education (HE) system.  At the same time Africans are looking to develop their economies, and increase their standard of living, reducing poverty and inequality.  This is reflected in Rwanda’s Vision 2020, Nigeria’s Vision 2020, Kenya’s Vision 2030 and Uganda’s Vision 2040. For Africa, MOOCs might present a way to provide post-secondary education to many new learners.  But MOOCs in their current form won’t work.

One of the requirements for MOOCs is high speed internet, something that is not widely available in Africa and is not expected to be any time soon. Currently internet access, when available, is generally of low band-width and poor reliability.  Oyo and Kalema have suggested a Made in Africa approach to MOOCs and HE.  This would involve the creation of a government funded MOOC secretariat to coordinate the HE Institutions, accreditation agencies and industry in the development of MOOC programmes producing employable graduates.  Students will access MOOCs through a number of methods which will evolve with time.  Radio and access to secondary school computer labs with network access may be an initial starting point.  Networked Hubs will store local copies of the course material where Internet connectivity is not reliable.  The tremendous growth in smartphone use will also provide a platform for MOOC delivery in time.   Adjustments to secondary school curriculum will be needed to ensure graduates have the skills, organizational and technical, to be successful learners in a MOOC environment.

The challenge is to provide ordinary Africans with access to post-secondary content, at low cost, that will help them develop the skills they will need to not only find jobs, but to create them.  Creativity and innovation are key skills in the 21st Century and are essential to developing new industries and new opportunities.  MOOCs have the potential to assist Africans, if they are designed and delivered in a manner that is appropriate for their circumstances.

African MOOC Access

Figure of Proposed MOOC Access System for Africans – Courtesy of Oyo and Kalema, 2014

Despite the hype and the ongoing attempts to commercialize MOOCs, they do not provide an easy, comprehensive solution to the challenges of education in the 21st century.  However, they are part of the current conversation on how to provide content and promote collaboration in a time of tight government funding.  The current lack of participation and low completion rates will require raising student’s comfort levels in technology use and learning in a different environment, but as in the case of Africa, the potential for MOOCs needs to be explored further.

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