Here is yet another piece on MOOCs, called “the MOOC movement – learning for all”, this time from the EuroNews channel. And yet again, it contains all the wrong propaganda!
Walter Lewin’s message in the video that MOOCs are “as important as the invention of the printing press” because “we reach out now to millions of people” is wrong in historical terms as well as in the present context. The same accounts for his enthusiastic claim that ‘we’ are reaching out to people “who could never have dreamed of sitting in a classroom or getting an education, let alone that they can now choose one course from Harvard, one course from Berkeley, one course from MIT”. In historic terms this is wrong, because the outreach did not start with MOOCs, but is as old as the Internet for learning. What’s more, there have been specific outreach agendas from different governments and supranational organisations (UN, EU) that paved the way to widening access to higher education. This change in political mindset has often been negatively associated with the technology-enabled ‘industrialisation’ of education. But, as can be seen in OECD statistical analyses (Education at a Glance), it accounts for a much larger rise in education levels than MOOCs have done to date, and with more lasting success, I might add:
Over the past 15 years, tertiary type-A graduation rates have risen by 20 percentage points on average among OECD countries (Education at a Glance 2012)
Even more encouraging:
Across all OECD countries, “an average of 47% of today’s young women and 32% of today’s young men will complete tertiary type-A education over their lifetimes”. (OECD 21012)
Note that this talks about completion and graduation, not registration figures or certificates for individual MOOCs.
One reason why things did not reach people in the millions early on was to do with the limited access to networks and bandwidth, but also with limited awareness. And even today, the Internet and unlimited high bandwidth are still an exclusive asset, as are smartphones. Those layers of society that are distant to education are typically also socioeconomically distant from the essential infrastructure that would allow them to participate. For this reason, MOOCs still are very much a middle class thing and will remain so for as long as telecom cost models present financial barriers to access – no matter how open the courses are.
Apart from the wrong praises for outreach attached to MOOCs, I remember the late nineties when e-learning claimed unlimited access to experts around the world. The best in the field, it said! This early promise hasn’t come true to the learners and MOOCs are not likely to provide this either, at least not long term. There is little sustainability in a MOOC and it is only a matter of time until institutions realise the true cost of delivering MOOCs the way Udacity, EdX, and Coursera do. Already, some institutions like Santa Fe Institute ask participants for donations, realising that even the simple broadcast of videos and MCQ tests costs tens of thousands of dollars. Currently, support comes from foundations like Templeton, but this stream isn’t going to last.
Another issue with MOOCs is that they are like puzzle pieces in the ocean. Getting hold of one or two pieces is an achievement, no doubt, but doesn’t constitute a curriculum leading to a qualification. If you want to become a medical doctor or an astronomer you need more than a single 10 weeks course in basic physics or anatomy. What about those field trips? What about the practical dissection sessions? Will competitor institutions like the said Harvard, Berkeley and MIT allow picking and choosing courses at different institutions for awarding degrees? Even in Europe where a common currency like ECTS provides a theoretical basis for this to happen, students encounter great difficulties with mutual recognition.
A note on the side: If all those top world experts would indeed be accessible by MOOCs, what would happen to all those million lecturers who are not on top? In my experience, students are quite pragmatic. They don’t go for the top grades or top experts, they usually follow the most comfortable path that balances academic success with personal efforts and fun.
One other key attribute that qualifies for being part of a curriculum is reiterations. Every academic year, a new cohort is guided through a course module, which is only updated a bit. This reiteration is not sexy in terms of MOOCs and the media, albeit that it may be the only way the initial costs can slowly be recuperated – perhaps.
In summary, the title of the programme “the MOOC movement – learning for all” may just be a MOOC movement of the united press and media companies, who unanimously admire the newness of the old hat that’s displayed by clever university marketeers.