MOOCS: 12 Reasons for universities not to panic

Don’t believe the hype?

There has been an extraordinary level of hype in higher education (and beyond) about Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. Vice-Chancellors and their senior management teams up and down the country have been fretting about the developments and whether they need to get on board with one of the big players to avoid missing out. Two UK universities have recently announced their membership of a MOOC consortium with both Edinburgh University and the University of London signing up with Coursera. Meanwhile in the US the governance chaos at the University of Virginia where the President was forced to resign by governors and then reinstated two weeks later was prompted, at least in part, by differences of opinion on institutional strategy in relation to MOOCs.

At least not yet

As noted in an earlier post, MOOCs are big and new and challenging for universities but in many ways they are a contemporary echo of aspirations for wider access to higher level study from an earlier age. So, if your university is asking whether it’s going to miss out by not joining one of the MOOC consortia or if your senior management team is in a spin about missing the MOOC bandwagon or even struggling to understand what the heck this is all about, here are a dozen good reasons not to panic.

  1. There isn’t a business model for MOOCs that stacks up. OK, there are hundreds of thousands of students enrolled but they aren’t paying a penny for the privilege. And it really isn’t free to design, develop and deliver online provision. The unit cost per student may be negligible but the real up front costs and maintenance are non trivial investments as noted in this earlier blog.
  2. Badges. Universities deliver higher education. We award degrees. MOOCs however adopt the cub scout approach to knowledge acquisition by giving you a badge or a nice attendance certificate if you make it to the end. Accreditation matters. Academic credentials have meaning and currency because of how they are attained and the means by which academic standards and quality are assured. Badges don’t offer this. They are just, well, badges.
  3. While we’re on the subject: Quality assurance – there really isn’t any to write home about. This is not to say that any old garbage will be delivered by anyone with a camera, a cool shirt and a wifi connection but rather that the quality assurance frameworks which govern MOOCs are, inevitably, fundamentally different from those which operate in universities.
  4. Standards. Similarly, it is pretty much impossible at the moment to assure the academic standards of MOOCs. Whilst part of the idea is to encourage collaboration between students and despite the introduction in certain specific cases of supervised examinations, plagiarism is inevitable and there is simply no way to test whether any assessment is genuinely a student’s own work.


  5. Online isn’t that new and shiny. Lots of universities are already delivering online provision. Just look at iTunesU – there are hundreds of institutions represented and thousands of educational courses and other offerings.
  6. It’s not a revolution. Despite what Moody’s may say, we’ve been here before. From correspondence courses to the launch of the Open University and from Mechanics’ Institutes to the University of London External Programme there really isn’t anything in this which has not been done before, albeit in slightly different ways.
  7. Wastage rates are enormous. 90% plus in many cases. That really isn’t a ringing endorsement. It’s low stakes for the participants. Many people are taking such courses just out of interest or to brush up their technical skills. While this remains the case then wastage will continue to be high and the hold of MOOCs will be tenuous.
  8. Content not education. MOOCs aren’t offering education but rather just content delivery. The classroom and campus experience and the face-to–face interaction with other learners and teachers is a key element of learning. People still matter. Especially in education.
  9. Tech. Computers still aren’t very good at marking essays. Most assessments are therefore more limited and plagiarism is easier.
  10. Inputs matter. Universities select their students for a good reason. They want them to be able to benefit from the course and have a reasonable chance of completing it. Complete open access means that high wastage rates are the norm and you can’t be confident that the ones who finish the course are any better for it or indeed if they did any of the work themselves.
  11. The Open University isn’t panicking. If any institution should be concerned it would be the OU as MOOCs would seem to strike at the heart of their business model. They aren’t. Indeed they seem to be doing better than ever.
  12. MOOCs are nothing without universities (where are all those trendy professors going to be educated otherwise?). And, despite what Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, predicts there will be more than 10 universities in the world half a century from now.

So, don’t panic. Yet. Because before we get too dismissive of the hype surrounding the game-changing, paradigm-shifting, revolutionary nature of MOOCs there are several reasons to pause for thought:

  • Numbers. There really are very large numbers of people following MOOCs who traditional higher education is not reaching. Internationally and locally there are opportunities for universities to reach new audiences which they really should be considering.
  • Ethos. The aims of the MOOC consortia in terms of promoting accessibility, participation and democratization of learning are laudable and should not be dismissed lightly.
  • Avoiding complacency. The services we offer to students who do enrol, study and stay on our campuses can always be improved. Students do have a choice and we need to ensure they get maximum value from their university experience.
  • IT. Many universities struggle to harness technological developments to support student learning. We can still do a lot better.

There is no need to panic therefore. At least not just yet. But setting aside the hype there are lessons to be learned and universities will want to consider how to raise their game. Just to be on the safe side.

11 thoughts on “MOOCS: 12 Reasons for universities not to panic

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » MOOCS: 12 Reasons for universities not to panic

  2. Pingback: MOOCs – is there value? « Execsec’s blog

  3. Pingback: MOOCS: 12 Reasons for universities not to panic | Flexibility Enables Learning

  4. There are 2 different issues :
    1.- MITx + Harvardx . Best schools of the world . Non Profit. Providing the same courses online as oncampus courses. providing a Certificate of Mastering a course after a rigid exam.
    Aware of that . After 5-6 years many small, unknown colleges will be closed .
    But MIT and Harvard will have the same number $ 50,000 tuition paying students
    After 10-15 years only good research universities + online teaching colleges will remain like MITx Harvardx + some more 2nd tier universities , we need them too .

    2.- Do not get scared by MOOCs . They will die within 24 months .
    But I wonder how elite universities can be this much in craze . Don’t they have any wisdom . It is a great issue for America elite universities at the stage of …….
    All America is on the hand of these elite universities . They raise presidents .

  5. Pingback: Learning Innovation » Blog Archive » Two paradoxes at the heart of MOOCs

  6. Pingback: University Education – Free for Everyone? | Registrarism

  7. Something new came up .
    So Colleges should be very happy,they will not be closed up in 10 years .
    ANTIOCH University found the solution.

    1.- ANTIOCH University will take up 5 courses online from DUKE and UPENN.
    ( Fees of DUKE and UPENN are so small )
    Then ANTIOCH saves 50 % of the cost that is tuition is halved.
    ANTIOCH also awards credits , + assigns a facilitator for the course.

    2.- Quality at the ANTIOCH will increase due to elite universities

    3.- ANTIOCH will be more on demand

    4.- Since 50 % of the courses are online most classrooms are empty so there is room for new students 4,000 ANTIOCH will be 8,000 soon .

    5.- If all colleges do the same then tuition in all USA will be halved
    quality will be increased , more room for everybody
    18 million enrollment will be 36 million . Degree awarding will be doubled too.

    Then 60 % of the 25-65 years olds will be with a degree by 2020 as OBAMA requires .

  8. Please do not worry about business model.
    If Udacity and Coursera charges only $ 10 they can finance everything.
    Universities + themselves
    In order to attract people they say it is free. Then hundred thousands register but only several thousands finish. It is just a marketing gimmick.
    If they say $ 10 now registration will be only several thousands and there will not be a good advertising .
    They are smart. .

    Elite universities online courses will be shared bu colleges .
    Colleges will give credits . will assign even facilitators
    Colleges will have 50 % cost reduction if they adopt 5 online courses .
    Colleges quality will increase by elite universities online courses
    Colleges will have more room new students
    It all win – win – win

    Everybody wins Including Mr. DUNCAN. I hope he reads these .

  10. Pingback: Oh dear, it’s the top Registrarism posts of 2012 | Registrarism

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