There is a revolution going on in online education. MOOCs (massive open online courses) entered onto the global higher education stage in 2011 and the New York Times labelled 2012 as the “Year of the MOOC”, at least in the United States. Now MOOCs are slowly emerging onto the New Zealand education scene, with both the University of Waikato and Massey University announcing their intent to offer MOOCs by the end of the 2013. MOOC provider Coursera is apparently looking at a partnership with the University of Auckland. The University of Otago isn’t interested, and at the time of writing, AUT, Canterbury, Lincoln, and Victoria have yet to reveal their positions.

In the meantime, New Zealanders are not waiting. Many of my academic colleagues and some of my students are taking MOOCs offered by overseas universities. That is one of the remarkable things about MOOCs: they offer university-level education to anyone in the world – it really is the emergence of the worldwide classroom.

What is a MOOC?

MOOCs sometimes enrol a massive number of students and instruction is completely online on the Internet. The key word in massive open online course is open. MOOCs offer open enrolment – university education without fees or tuition. MOOCs utilise open education resources – linking to information, knowledge, and analysis that are pervasive on the internet. MOOCs practice open participation – using social media tools such as Twitter, blogs, Google Hangout, and Facebook to support learning.

How is this different from what we are doing now?

In “online education 1.0” almost all university courses offered online represented only incremental changes from classroom-based learning. Most frequently, 50-minute lectures were videotaped, course guides were converted to .pdf files, and the students still had to buy a textbook. For most courses in most universities, the change from face-to-face learning to e-learning was marginally evolutionary.

In this new era of online education 2.0:

  • The massiveness of a MOOC, with 100, 1000, or even 10,000 non-fee-paying students, means alternative methods of student-instructor interaction and assessment are necessary. So short, 12–15 minute interactive videos replace a lecture and discussion forums replace tutorials. Computers mark multiple-choice questions and written assignments are marked by other students through peer assessment.
  • MOOCs practice, to varying degrees, connectivist learning – a learning environment in which students learn more from each other than they do from the instructor. Discussion forums in MOOCs are used for active learning, much more than in the structured learning environments of the traditional course or even e-learning. Social media strategies are employed – for example, student comments are “liked” and the best comments rise to the top. Engagement strategies such as asking quiz questions during the video lecture are also innovative learning practices new to most online education.
  • The emergence of the MOOC provider, such as Coursera, edX, Udacity, FutureLearn, and Open2Study, provides the scalable infrastructure that is required. Institutional learning management systems such as Moodle can’t manage many of the MOOC-based innovations described above. Traditional student enrolment systems weren’t designed to cope with vast numbers of students enrolling with no formal admission processes – they fall over in a world with no student ID numbers. So universities offer their MOOCs through MOOC providers who promote the MOOCs collectively, enrol the students, and manage logistics such as the process of peer assessment. One long-term impact of this may be the disintermediation of the university as the student develops an allegiance to the individual instructor and/or the MOOC provider, not the university.
  • Peer assessment is not new, but it has never been attempted on such a massive scale. In a typical MOOC with written assignments, a student must mark 4-5 assignments submitted by other students before he/she can receive his/her similarly marked assignment. Considerable research in small classrooms supports peer assessment (i.e. student marks correlate well with teacher marks) and Coursera is devoting considerable effort to refine the process for large-scale peer assessment.
  • Extremely low completion rates are acknowledged and widely accepted. Approximately half of all students who register never attend a first video lecture. Another 50 per cent never submit any assignment. According to one study of 29 MOOCs, the average completion rate was 6.8 per cent. Coursera estimates only five per cent of its students submit and pass all assignments to get a certificate of completion. This is deemed perfectly acceptable because MOOC learners get what they want across a broad range of possible outcomes, from expressing a browsing interest in a course to a verified certificate of completion. Besides, even if only seven per cent of 10,000 students complete, that is still more than almost any other university course.
  • The business model is no longer bums-on-seats. Instead, most universities and MOOC providers are motivated by marketing, prestige building, and social altruism. Revenue models include charging for verified certificates, career services, and licensing course content to mid-tier universities.

Any of these alone would be an evolutionary step forward, but collectively, they make a revolutionary change in online education, a change no institution of higher education can ignore.

Are MOOCs a threat?

Immediately after the emergence of MOOCs, there was considerable concern that MOOCs would pose an enormous threat to traditional in-class higher education. Emerging trends suggest this is not the case.

The limitations of MOOCs – no formal degree credit, lack of personal interaction, mixed variability in the quality and quantity of instruction – suggest that universities and polytechnics who are providing a reasonably high quality of instruction have nothing to fear from MOOCs.

One analysis of MOOC students suggests they are principally composed of two audiences:

(a) college-age students in developing countries in which higher education is unavailable or highly restricted and, especially, (b) lifelong learners who are exploring a personal interest or topping up/adding a job skill. Evidence so far suggests MOOCs won’t change the shape of the pie pieces in the higher education enrolment pie – moving in-class fee-paying students into the MOOC student category – instead MOOCs have the greatest potential to increase the size of the pie – to provide education to those who would not have the opportunity or inclination to enter a classroom.

Those who should feel most threatened by MOOCs are education providers who view their students as captive audiences with nowhere else to go. This is especially true if the provider is not delivering good value education.

Institutions that specialise in distance education – Massey University and the Open Polytechnic, for example – could also be mildly threatened as some lifelong learners find what they need in a MOOC rather than an online course.

For all others – the overwhelming vast majority of institutions, instructors and students – higher education will change, and change for the better, but it will not disappear.

Are MOOCs an opportunity?

Most online educators say yes. Numerous MOOC teachers are integrating the material they developed for MOOCs into their in-class teaching. Some are going so far as to “flip the classroom” – using their MOOC videos for out-of-class lectures and working through assignments and discussing key issues in the classroom.

MOOC providers are also utilising “education analytics” to examine how online students learn – every entry into the virtual classroom, every rewind of a video lecture, every second reading discussion forums and every wrong answer to a quiz question is recorded and analysed.

Then feedback for improvement of teaching can be made to instructors, course designers and instruction support personnel. Big data comes to education, and what works best in MOOCs can be passed on throughout the education system.

What is ahead?

It is still early days for MOOCs, perhaps about where the World Wide Web was when it contained a few thousand Web pages, before e-commerce, Wikipedia, Google and Facebook.

In the short term, entrepreneurial universities will adjust to monetise their investment in MOOCs in a variety of ways – for example, offering degree credit or digital badges to certify MOOC-based learning. Online universities will integrate much of what is being learned into distance education courses and every university will consider licensing MOOC-based content into instruction to enhance the educational experience.

Welcome to the worldwide classroom! It is difficult to know what exactly is ahead for higher education in the age of the MOOC, but change is happening now and all of higher education needs to be preparing for it.

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