To enable higher education for all who seek it worldwide, massive open online courses — MOOCs — are the newest solution. To enable the delivery of increasingly sophisticated and interactive course content to participants who can number in the hundreds to the tens of thousands, a great deal of venture capital money is being invested in emerging online platforms.
However, nobody can yet define whom exactly they are meant to benefit, creating a dilemma. As Dr. Ben Brabon of Edgehill University, whose massive open online course in vampire fiction is one of only two accredited MOOCs currently offered in the UK, observes, MOOCs have poor completion rates despite being popular to start off.
For his vampire fiction course, that meant 1,000 enrolments and 31 completions. "And almost all of those had a first degree or had been educated to degree level," he says. "So the MOOCs trend may not be opening up HE to sectors of the population it hasn't reached to date."
"Learning online is a different thing, needs quite advanced learning skills," confirms David Kernohan, progamme manager for eLearning Innovation at JISC, a charity which champions the use of digital technologies in UK education and research. "With MOOCs, there's very little support available: the student is dropped in and tends not to get any individual attention. This is instead approximated by peer support such as online discussion forums."
In addition, Kernohan says this while that may mean that online study is unattractive or difficult for someone without high level qualifications, it does suggest that MOOCs could be "a really good tool for continuing education".
As Louise Tickle of The Guardian reports, questions still remain whether MOOCs can provide a new path to university-level education at a time when the number of part-time students has fallen sharply as the price of a degree rises.
"I don't think that's how MOOCs work," says Brabon. Instead, he suggests, "a blended approach that combines a campus experience with a MOOC; also, perhaps, using MOOCs to create a global degree, with students taking courses from across the world, might be possible."
Additionally, Brabon, who is on a Quality Assurance Agency working group aiming to develop an agreed approach to standards and grading, believes that accreditation is the central challenge that MOOCs must grapple with to gain credibility within academia and currency with employers. This is because no employer wants a candidate with MOOC completion certificate without any quality assurance on either the course content or its assessment standards.
He also notes that some problems in keeping standards high can be created by the interactive online dynamic of a MOOC and its open access philosophy. As Mike Sharples, chair of Educational Technology which produced the 2012 Innovating Pedagogy report that predicted the rise of MOOCs, points out, accreditation has an international angle given the potential for MOOCs to make learning accessible to people across the globe.
Sharples believes that with different credit systems operating in different countries, "we need to find a way of people doing a MOOC and their credits being transferable. It's all possible but it needs a lot of co-ordination."
Despite there being an idealism around the concept of MOOCs bringing the best of first-world teaching to students in less developed countries, there is cynicism too, with the suggestion that universities could use MOOCs to advertise their on-campus wares to greater numbers of lucrative, though certainly not always wealthy, students from outside the EU.