New Trends in Open Education: MOOCs

The concept of open education is old: universities offering distance learning programs, such as India’s IGNOU, have been around for years. However, open education is more than simply distance learning through the Internet. Two recent ideas include Open Educational Resources (OER) and the more recent Massive Online Open Courses.

Open educational resources refer to teaching materials or resources which are freely accessible. Examples include MIT’s OpenCourseWare, started in 2002. NPTEL, which posts lectures from IIT faculty, might qualify as an Indian example.

2011 saw the advent of what are called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These are web-based, free courses aiming at global participation. Offered by faculty from leading US universities, these courses do not amount to a degree or a credit. The only motivating factor seems to be the chance to learn from and interact with the experts. Technology allows MOOC class sizes to be gigantic. These courses actively involve students through in-class quizzes, homework and examinations that are graded.

One of the first was the Introduction to Artificial Intelligence course, offered by two Stanford faculty. It saw 160,000 participants worldwide, 23000 of which completed it. The class used video lectures, with in-video quiz features. Quizzes and assignments were treated similarly. Students were given the benefit of a discussion forum on aiqus.com, which saw questions being raised and answered at a more advanced level than the class itself. In an effort to simulate real-life office hours, the instructors answered student questions in short videos uploaded to the site.

In 2012, Sebastian Thrun founded Udacity. Funded by Charles River Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, the start-up offers online courses mostly in science and technology subjects. A similar venture, Coursera currently offers courses with faculty from more than 30 major US universities. It has raised capital from Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers and New Enterprise Associates. MIT and Harvard have collaborated to build edX, a not-for-profit platform offering a variety of courses.

The Indian scene

According to industry research, 4.8% of the total students enrolled on Coursera are Indians, with 93 groups in Delhi alone. Interestingly, about 67% of Coursera students are not from the United States and many of those are from developing nations. This might indicate a high interest in either the content of the courses (perhaps for remedial purposes), or the branding associated with elite US universities.

Can MOOCs ever be a viable educational model?

Despite the excitement, these companies’ business model is unclear. None of the courses lead to a university-approved degree. All of them are currently offered free of cost. Suggested revenue models include:

  • charging the students who complete the course a small fee for a certificate (Coursera)
  • serving as a “headhunter” for companies, matching successful students with organizations for a fee (Udacity)

These options depend on portion of the massive student base – those who actually take the courses in order to enhance their resumes, rather than those who take them purely out of interest. Given that the courses do not carry the same weight as traditional degrees, the former are low in numbers and the percentage of dropouts is high. But charging all students a fee is against the main philosophy of the “open education” movement, and risks lowering participation and interest.

A serious criticism of online education comes from educators who assert that online education is a flawed model, since it only delivers content and fails to transfer the classroom experience and faculty contact that forms a university’s worth. Thus, MOOCs can never ‘disrupt’ the present educational system, but at best serve as “dumbed down” versions of courses for the masses. Moreover, how does one monitor students for unethical behaviours?

Platforms like Coursera are planning to experiment with proctored examinations and identity checks. This model allows them to charge fees for serious students, who might then use the course for college credits.

Core challenges remain the following:

  • Credibility: The core utility of an education lies in its ability to impact future careers.
  • There is no data yet about whether students actually benefit from these courses in the job market.
  • Technological constraints: Can technology evolve to the point where MOOCs can be used for subjects whose evaluation is nearly impossible to automat? Without this, will online learning remain restricted to basic courses? If so, what value will they add to a prospective student?
  • Scalability: Similar to technological constraints, does the large-scale nature of these courses mean a significant “dumbing-down” of content?

Conclusion

While MOOCs cannot claim to be a substitute for offline modes of education in any way, they may turn out to be a valuable resource for reskilling and constantly updating one’s knowledge, especially in high-technology sectors. Yet the credibility gap and the lack of a tested revenue model means that it remains to be seen whether this is truly a new trend or a passing fad.

Krittika is a PGP-1 student at  IIM Ahmedabad and a member of the Consult Club. She is interested in technology and learning. She holds a B.E in Information Technology from Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology, Delhi.

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