MOOCs: Accessible education or are universities giving away too much for free?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are the latest phenomenon in distance learning: university-level courses which anyone with the inclination can participate in – no entry qualifications or fees required. Naturally, enthusiasts saw this as an exciting development – this ready availability to all-comers led them to hail MOOCs as perhaps the first truly accessible education for all. Universities got on board, seeing MOOCs as an opportunity to provide taster courses to potential students, in the hope of attracting them to take their studies further and embark on a full degree course – which would, of course, be subject to tuition fees. A couple of years on since the emergence of MOOCs into the mainstream, does the evidence back up the universities’ investment, or are they in fact giving away too much learning material for free without really reaping any of the promised rewards? 

Data now available from MOOC providers on both sides of the Atlantic seems to run contrary to whatAccessible Education Library the universities might have expected, or wished for. The demographics show that, rather than the potential undergraduate student the universities had hoped to appeal to, a large proportion (more than 70%) of those who enrolled already had a degree, while many were already in employment or enrolled in other education. The typical MOOC student, the data suggests, is in fact a well-educated, 30-something male who wants to use the course for his professional or personal development. So, while accessible education for all may be an admirable goal, should the universities be investing in this kind of free digital learning when those who typically make use of it could actually afford to pay for it? Shouldn’t they focus their efforts on their on-campus, fee-paying students? Moreover, is a part of those students’ tuition fees being used to fund the creation and provision of MOOCs?

MOOCs do undeniably attract a large number of learners, but their critics would point out that the number of these who go on to finish their courses is alarmingly low – US figures place completion rates as low as 10% – fuelling the theory that people are cherry picking from the freely available course content to plug gaps in their knowledge for a specific career or personal goal, or to complement their main course of study. And what of the other vision of MOOCs as a vehicle to make higher education available to those in the developing world who may not otherwise have access to university courses? Here again, the initial figures suggest that they may have fallen wide of the mark, with the vast majority of MOOC students at present coming from developed economies. This, however, may change as awareness of MOOCs spreads and participation widens; they are, after all, still in their infancy and. like all new things, may need to adapt and evolve in order to find the place where they can be of most benefit both to learners and to the universities who are investing in their development.

In fact, there’s evidence that this evolution may have already begun. Professor Sebastian Thrun of Stanford University was one of the early pioneers of MOOCs, putting his introductory three-month course on artificial intelligence online back in 2011. He was overwhelmed by the uptake – 160,000 people between the ages of 10 and 70 from 190 countries took part – and went on to set up his own company, Udacity, to develop and deliver other MOOCs. In the few short years it has been in operation it has amassed an impressive 1.6 million users, but Thrun’s view of MOOCs is shifting based on some of the statistics mentioned above. He was recently quoted as saying, “We don’t educate people as I wished.” As a result, Udacity has switched its main focus to vocational courses for which fees are payable, although these are a fraction of those paid by on-campus students.

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It remains to be seen whether other MOOC providers will follow Udacity’s lead and start charging for their content, but it does seem certain that significant changes lie ahead if MOOCs are to find the worldwide audience and broad demographic they originally targeted with the lofty aspiration of accessible education for all, regardless of location, means or qualifications. The bottom line is that MOOCs are costly for universities to produce and, though it’s early days, thus far they aren’t providing sufficient return on that investment in terms of encouraging new students through universities’ doors. So, while they may yet come to revolutionise higher education as we know it, they’ll have to find a way to earn their keep first.

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