Distance education has changed the way people teach, study, form communities, work together, and interact on the web. It has enabled so many people, who otherwise for one or another reason could not afford it, to obtain a degree and advance their careers. Now, the MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) is taking distance education to a whole new level. This game-changing technology is redefining the notion of studying and is changing the face of higher education.
What is a MOOC?
In a nutshell, MOOC is a recent development in distance education; a contemporary interactive teaching mechanism that became possible thanks to the rapid progress and unlimited technological opportunities of the recent years. A Massive Open Online Course, as the name suggests, is a course that gives unlimited participation to anyone with access to the internet. MOOCs are characterised by large-scale availability, low cost to students, and the creation of new pathways to education.
EDUCAUSE, the foremost community of higher education IT leaders and professionals, puts it quite simply: “A massive open online course (MOOC) is a model for delivering learning content online to any person who wants to take a course, with no limit on attendance”. Simply put, schools all over the world use online platforms to organise their own courses/classes, which can be taken for free by anyone who is interested. The schools offer all kinds of learning materials for free, including but not limited to lectures, videos, reading materials and project assignments, and all participants have unlimited access to those materials.
Such courses build their communities via numerous traditional course materials, including video lectures, classic reading materials and problem solving cases, but additionally may use custom platforms to strengthen the course participants’ sense of community. Amy Collier, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at Stanford University (US) says that “the MOOC is just an indicator of how important it is for people to connect with each other as part of their learning experience. […] It is validating informal learning”.
A new business model
The hype surrounding the MOOC has caused an entirely new business model to emerge. There is now a boom in MOOC platform providers and tools. Forbes reported that the funding for these platforms is on the rise. For instance, Coursera has received a financial injection of USD 63 million. This is more than the USD 60 million that MIT (US) and Harvard (US) poured into edX. This, the article goes on, is a massive market opportunity and as the niche is still young and undeveloped, the sky is the limit. Other MOOC providers include NovoEd, Udacity, Udemy, Skillsoft, and Lynda, to name but a few. A simple illustration of how quickly the trend is maturing is that as of May 2013 Coursera had 70 institutions that offered MOOCs. As of February 2014, those institutions exceeded 100!
Who can sign up?
Such courses are open to everybody and depending on the topic of the course the participants can be from various countries, ages, educational, and professional backgrounds. Some people do it for personal enrichment; others do it because they cannot afford to enrol in traditional programmes; and yet others do it for work-related purposes. Even some companies are starting to pick up on the trend and are willing to explore the use of MOOCs in corporate training. If you want numbers, there were over 3.5 million people enrolled in the 374 courses offered by Coursera as of end-May 2013! And the numbers are growing daily.
IT technology has made such courses possible. However, IT is not just a delivery channel; it is a way to change the learning experience and an enabler of new life-long learning models. In this sense, MOOC fundamentally is about creating a pathway to life-long learning, not just isolated experiences. However, the ideology of open courses does indeed cause a real polemic among many practitioners in the education field regarding the issues that emerge in relation to the MOOCs.
It is true that drop-out rates in the free courses are relatively high, mainly due to the fact that the courses are indeed free of charge and this does make a person more likely to give up at any point. In contrast, if a person is enrolled in a programme and has paid a significant amount of money to fund his or her education, the opportunity cost of quitting a course is much higher. Nevertheless, despite the downfalls of the MOOC technology, the benefits that derive from it are already reshaping the education industry worldwide.
Benefits beyond free education
In addition to providing access to a variety of free courses, the MOOC concept has resulted in a number of side benefits. The MOOCs are bringing attention to the cost of higher education by upending the notion of traditional university registration. Statistically speaking, there are around two billion potential learners around the world today – they are all potential MOOC students. It is true that many of them (around 70% according to Forbes) cannot afford college degrees, and the free online courses are a great opportunity for them to gain knowledge and qualifications which would otherwise be impossible. Furthermore, MOOCs are creating new business models for higher education and they are providing information about how we learn, through the use of analytics. There is an ongoing discussion as to whether MOOCs will have any impact on the popularity of the traditional education formats, where the person actually enrols in a programme and officially becomes a student in some university, and on people’s willingness to pay tens of thousands of dollars for their degree. Top institutions such as Stanford (US), Yale (US), Brown University, HEC (France/Canada), IE Business School (Spain), IESE (Spain) and the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) all offer various MOOCs. To mention just a few – universities whose courses are available on the MOOC platforms literally number in hundreds! So the question inevitably emerges: why would anyone pay for education nowadays if the best universities offer courses for free? The reality is that, according to Forbes, only 17% of employers consider online education to be as valuable as in-class education for gaining credentials and skills. Furthermore, even though people do have access to various learning resources, MOOCs lack some crucial aspects of the traditional models of education. On the one hand, technology and the various platforms have almost eliminated the issue of isolation and absence from the classroom, and there is indeed a very high-level sense of community among participants in MOOCs. On the other hand, networking opportunities, face- to-face collaboration on group projects, the opportunity to immerse yourself in real businesses and practise what you are learning on the go are all invaluable aspects of traditional education that even the greatest technology cannot substitute.
MOOCs and the MBA
The Masters in Business Administration is a degree that is constantly changing in line with the pace of global business. In fact, it is real-world business and its needs that drive the direction of evolution of the MBA as a degree. In order to produce equipped and well trained graduates, business schools are expected to ensure their programmes are up to date with the economic changes in the international business arena. In this sense, MOOCs can potentially play a crucial role in the future of the MBA as a degree.
According to an official report, based on a survey by the United Kingdom Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, many leading US universities are already engaging enthusiastically in MOOCs by lending their support in terms of brand, content, funds, staff, badging, and policy. They see opportunities for brand enhancement, experimentation in teaching methods, recruitment, and business model innovation.
Allan Gyorke, Chief Academic Technology Officer at the University of Miami (US), says that MOOCs are giving universities all over the world the invaluable opportunity to create perpetual degrees. What Gyorke suggests may be a great new potential selling point for postgraduate education. Universities can now invite their graduates to a free refresher course every few years to ensure that their skills and knowledge are synchronised with the current market conditions and trends. This could provide extra added value to the degree and could practically ensure that a person’s diploma never becomes outdated. Instead, that person could benefit from the opportunity of eternal learning! As far-fetched as this statement may sound, MOOCs could turn the MBA into a degree that never goes out of fashion. Additionally, business schools could use these revolutionary web-based tools as another advantage in their value package for attracting prospective students.
Lastly, the development of MOOCs could potentially change the MBA of the future. Such courses could enable MBA students to use their time with their professors more effectively by watching their lectures online in advance, thus giving the class extra time to discuss more advanced issues related to the current topic and ask well-informed questions.
“Learning, working, collaborating. Locally, globally, universally”
We are no longer simply in the information age – we do more than just access information, we get connected, exchange ideas, make sense of the information we gain. And this to a great extent has been made possible thanks to MOOCs. Although the technology is developing incessantly, the MOOC concept is still relatively young and we are yet to see how far it will take contemporary education.