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Massive open online courses: Welcome to the new wave of distance learning

Moocs are challenging the orthodoxy of higher education

Over-hyped, oversubscribed and over here? Or higher education’s inevitable next step?  Whatever your opinion, the US-inspired massive open online courses (Moocs) prove the existence of an enormous untapped market for high-quality distance learning and a potentially profitable revenue stream.

In the two short years since its launch with two Stanford University modules in April 2012, US Mooc platform Coursera has built up an estimated six million users worldwide. “Courserans” – as the eponymous web platform’s online learners are dubbed – can choose from more than 400 Moocs in over 20 categories, created by 85 universities in 16 countries.

Its two main rivals, EdX and Udacity, have two million and one million users respectively. Moocs can attract followings of up to 100,000 students for popular subjects or fewer than 10 per cent of that for niche offerings. 

Last September, the Open University launched FutureLearn, its own Mooc, and in the same year Moocs were launched in Finland, France and Ireland. “At the OU, we felt we had to have a UK response to what the US universities were doing, and that it was important to be represented strongly in  the Moocs market,” says Mark Lester, FutureLearn Global Head of Partnerships.

FutureLearn brings together 23 of the UK’s top universities,  including Bath, Edinburgh, Kings College London, Southampton and Warwick, with three leading international universities, Auckland, Monash and Trinity College  Dublin. The British Museum,  British Library and British Council joined as content partners. 

An early adopter, the University of Southampton was one of the technology partners behind the FutureLearn platform’s development. The university’s first Mooc, introduction to web science, was fronted by Professor Dame Wendy Hall, dean of Southampton  University’s Faculty of Physical Sciences and Engineering, and Sir Nigel Shadbolt, professor of artificial intelligence. In six one-hour slots, the online programme charted with video clips and interviews the impact of the web on major subject disciplines including health, crime and economics. The course attracted 13,000 participants from a wide demographic across the UK and Europe that included recent undergraduates, teachers and the newly retired. “It’s all about marketing. It’s about ‘hey, look, this is a really interesting subject that you might want to study full time!’” says Professor Hall.

Southampton is following up with two more Moocs on oceanography and archaeology, two areas where the university has established a pre-eminent reputation. Another  FutureLearn partner, the University of East Anglia, ran a Mooc on teaching computing. “It’s for teachers and aspiring teachers and it’s the biggest course we’ve ever done. For us, 25,000 participants is massive,” says Helena Gillespie, senior lecturer in education and associate dean for teaching and learning in the Faculty of Social Science. 

Massive enrolment is one thing, but completion of online courses is something entirely different. Market research suggests that less than 10 per cent of students signing up for Coursera finish their Mooc. However, a new economic model appears to be emerging. Whatever the completion rates, most FutureLearn participants judge the experience to be a big success. “I think the raw number of sign-ups isn’t the best measure of success. For us it’s the quality of  experience participants take away with them that counts. We’re heading for a completion rate of 30-40  per cent, but getting to the end of the programme isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. The learner may have achieved their learning goals before finishing,” says Gillespie. 

Whether you like it or not, Moocs are challenging the orthodoxy of higher education and business education. “The idea behind Moocs is that learning is affordable and accessible and that a community of learners can shape their own education. It may not be a revolution, but Moocs are a disruptive development that has established a very exciting principle,” says Maren Deepwell, chief executive of the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), the UK’s leading membership organisation in the learning technology field.

New business models are emerging as Mooc platforms are looking to monetise their activities and recoup their considerable investment. Venture-capital backed commercial company Coursera now generates revenue from certification fees, introducing students to potential employers, and from commercial sponsorship. In September 2013, Coursera announced that it had earned over $1m from verified completion certificates.

Moocs, according to Southampton’s Professor Hall, are evolving into a commercial alternative to traditional taught degrees and distance learning blended programmes. “The evolution of Moocs is a bit like the web. Companies such as Google,  Facebook and Twitter all began with a free platform but started charging for value-added services once they had built up a massive online following.

“If you are going to start charging for a Mooc then you are talking about a validated qualification with much more in-depth provision, that could include a lot more assessment, feedback on that assessment and a tutorial follow-up. I’m calling this Epoc – short for enhanced private online course,” says Hall. “Epocs will potentially attract hundreds of students who are paying for the additional pedagogical support and working  towards an accredited qualification”.

So could Moocs sound the death knell of the traditional taught  degree? Quite possibly. But the  transition would be slow and would depend upon a mechanism that could replicate the teacher contact and a ration of one teacher to 25 students recommended by ALT. Deepwell  believes the technical challenges can be overcome. “Could a Mooc ever replace a taught degree? Probably one day, yes. There are already cases where you can set a full exam or part of a degree using a Mooc. But teaching is key. You need teachers regardless of how you deliver the learning, ” says Deepwell. And few would disagree with that.

Building bridges with young people

Some universities are starting to use Moocs to market themselves to tech-savvy young people. 

Among FutureLearn’s first tranche of Mooc courses was University of East Anglia’s “Preparing for Uni”. “It’s addressed at sixth formers and their teachers and it goes into the different skills required across the different subjects and disciplines we offer,” says Helena Gillespie, Associate Dean for Learning, Teaching and Quality at University of East Anglia Faculty of Social Sciences.

Meanwhile, Warwick Business School, another FutureLearn pioneer, is developing a Mooc to deliver a foundation to higher education programme. Self-assessment exercises and multiple choice tests could play a part. “We want to build a bridge with young people who may not have considered higher education. The online course would be part of a year-long qualifying programme and is part of our “Year Zero Programme” for 2015-16,” says WBS Dean Mark Taylor.