Mon 4th December 2017 - 14:57

How to make MOOCs last

At the height of their popularity, MOOCs were regularly featured on all education journals and magazines. However, the media hype is now declining. MOOCs were seen as the future of education and a way to revolutionise higher education. The original MOOC format, which was meant to be entirely free, is slowly decreasing. Whether MOOCs are developed and hosted by higher education institutions/organisations (e.g. Coursera) or business/public organisations, MOOC developers face structural limits, which include financial resources and real-time constraints.

Does this mean that MOOCs are on their way out?

Not quite. MOOCs are still rapidly increasing and open education is becoming more of a mainstream expectation in higher education. Some of the most risk-adverse and world-renowned institutions have joined online platforms as a way to enhance their visibility and advertise their course offerings. A recent study from the Higher Education Academy and the National Students Union conducted in 2014 suggests that more than the majority of students expect open education to assume a greater role.

The main issue with MOOCs lies in their sustainability. To date, the education sector has not yet found a coherent solution on how to make MOOCs last.

This article will address two main points to make MOOCs sustainable: how to finance them and how to design them.

How to finance MOOCs

The real costs of developing a MOOC, which rely on different outputs than traditional University courses, can often be underestimated. This may begin to explain why free MOOCs are becoming less common.

The inflation of costs can be due to the uncertainty around the number of subscribers, as well as the attrition rate (which can be as high as 90%).

Ways to improve the costs of MOOCs include a supply-side investment or subsidy (e.g. if a MOOC is financed by a public organisation); or demand-side pricing such as getting users to pay to complete the course or to obtain a certification or credit at the end of the course.

In order to make MOOCs sustainable, MOOC developers will need to create a charge that will depend on the competition of the current market, the number of expected subscribers and development costs. 

For example, MOOC courses on edX currently range between $50–$300. Nanodegree programmes provided by Udacity are charged on a monthly basis e.g. $199 a month. Meaning the total cost will vary depending on how much time you spend learning. Other programmes offer a one-time payment.

How to design a MOOC

A possible reason for the decline of MOOCs is that they fail to identify and reach out to the appropriate target audience.

When the MOOC craze began, many hoped that MOOCs would help to reach out to those who are least likely to attend higher education and become a tool for greater equity. Instead, the opposite has happened. Those who sign up are often well educated and highly motivated learners. MOOC content needs to be adjusted to reflect this and built to challenge the profile of learners most likely to take the course. This could include conducting repeated assessments at the beginning and end of the modules to keep learners focused throughout the course.

The course design for a MOOC, if asynchronous, needs to be adjusted to encourage learner participation and engagement by using tools which include gaming and collaborative tools e.g. to jointly design a course material.

How to certify MOOCs

Certifying MOOCs that are typically not rewarded by a university diploma and not accredited, also comes in as a key consideration. Employers do not pay the same weight to MOOC attendance as they do to a university course because of the lack of accreditation and certification of the former. Some universities such as Leeds and the Open University offer university credits for MOOCs. Non-Higher Education institutions are veering toward other modes of endorsement, like online badges or certificates with advanced features, such as a specification of the skills acquired. The certification and recognition mechanisms of self-learning skills tend to be inconsistent. A key to the sustainability of MOOCs would be to develop a viable and universally accepted certification and recognition mechanism of informal learning and self-learnt skills.

Making MOOCs sustainable

To conclude, the multiplication of MOOCs has been pragmatic for many institutions, especially those who use MOOCs to advertise their courses. This has shed light on several aspects that relate to the sustainability of MOOCs. To be sustainable, MOOCs will require substantial thinking around their business model and the key issue of certification, course design and inclusion in a general educational offer. These key points on the sustainability of MOOCs mean that, unfortunately, MOOCs are currently operating as a by-product of traditional higher education courses, rather than a revolutionary tool.

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