DISTANCE education is nothing new, but these days it is hard to escape hyperventilation about its latest incarnation: MOOCs, or “massive open online courses”. Universities had been tinkering with open-access learning for a number of years, but towards the end of 2011 two senior lecturers at Stanford University offered an online course in artificial intelligence. Anyone who completed the course received a certificate of recognition. An astonishing 160,000 students from all corners of the planet signed up, and 23,000 of them completed the course. Within a year there were two companies and one non-profit offering MOOCs in association with a range of leading universities. This month the journal MOOC Forum published its first issue. An editorial explains that there are over 500 MOOCs being offered by more than 100 well known, and accredited, university brands. All are offered without charge. The combination of quality courses offered by brand-name universities, good online learning technology and the wide availability of broadband links has allowed distance learning to come of age. But will MOOCs kill university degrees?
Mostly MOOCs are not just online video lectures that one downloads on a whim. Generally one must register for a course, wait some time for it to start, and then keep up with its demands on a weekly basis, along with thousands of other students. For example, the MOOC software may pause at various intervals throughout the lecture to ask questions which need to be answered correctly to continue watching. For the more committed, MOOCs involve homework, online discussions and testing. Concerns over high drop-out rates are overblown. Most people (including your correspondent) enroll for these free courses for enjoyment, enlightenment or curiosity and are not committed to finishing them or gaining a certificate. (Mozart may have written “The Magic Flute” with the intention that you listen to the entire opera, but just playing the overture does not mean that either he or you have failed.) Indeed, the optimal consumption of a MOOC for any given student may actually only be part of the course.
The companies offering MOOCs gain through payments for invigilated tests, course materials such as books, and helping employers find workers with the right skills. School children will take them to make their university applications stand out from the crowd. Others will take them to update their knowledge and apply for jobs a little outside their area of expertise. MOOCs will have a huge impact in places with little access to higher education. (Battushig Myanganbayar, a 15-year-old boy from Ulan Bator, was one of an elite group students who earned a perfect score in the online Circuits and Electronics course offered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology.) As MOOCs get better and more compelling, more of those who didn’t finish but wanted to will do so. The “aMOOC” will use adaptive learning to allow each student to follow their own optimal path through a course. The world will adapt too. In the same way people accept as given that they can search for anything online instantly, or read an encyclopedic entry on any subject, so they will come to expect open-access higher education. In the global race for talent, the only question is which institutions can move quickly enough to take advantage of the growing number of MOOCs and MOOC graduates, the members of a new smart and motivated global club.
MOOCs presage a period of great change in higher education, but they will not kill off the traditional degree. After all, people still want to buy vinyl records in an era of MP3s. And so far there are insufficient numbers of graduates to force big shifts immediately. But MOOCs will prompt more rapid innovation in a sector facing enormous pressures over the cost of its basic product. Eventually the full-time residential four-year degree (three in Europe) could start to look out-of-date. Online education allows colleges to innovate with regard to the quality, length and cost of their offerings. It should be possible to offer shorter and cut-price degrees that are demonstrably equivalent (in terms of employability) to the degrees of today. Already there is pressure on publicly funded universities to accept online credits, and the American Council on Education says that it will evaluate MOOCs for college credit.