This could be huge...

Moocs are already big - in reach and in hype - and are predicted to explode. Zoë Corbyn checks in to learn if they are more than just a novelty and to find out what it’s like to teach a class of 38,000

December 6, 2012

Kristin Sainani, clinical assistant professor in health policy at Stanford University, has just finished teaching her most popular course ever.

But its popularity was far beyond the scale of a class of several hundred students, with seminar rooms and lecture theatres bursting at the seams. The take-up was off the charts. More than 38,000 students scattered across the globe signed up to take her online course, “Writing in the Sciences”, which aims to help scientists become better writers.

Over eight weeks, the students took part via short online video lectures, discussion forums, automated quizzes and assignments graded by peers. The online-only course, which is based on the postgraduate course that Sainani teaches in the traditional manner in person at Stanford, was delivered under the banner of Coursera, a start-up company based in nearby Silicon Valley, which hands out certificates to students who complete.

Sainani’s programme was a Mooc, a massive open online course, a new beast in the academy that has risen rapidly in prominence, attracting considerable hype and media coverage. It would probably be fair to call “Mooc” the biggest buzzword in higher education in 2012. Moocs have been embraced by elite US institutions including Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, which use them to offer courses that may be undertaken for free but do not carry any academic credit. Designed for very large numbers of learners to follow over the internet, Moocs have inspired hope that high-quality elite education can reach the masses even in far-flung corners of the globe. An estimated 3 million people worldwide - many from the US but significant numbers from developing countries as well - have already signed up to study one. But Moocs have also prompted apocalyptic visions: Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University, has warned that Moocs could lead higher education into a “Napster moment”, a reference to the explosion in free music file-sharing that upended the music industry’s business model. With almost daily announcements flowing from universities across the spectrum about how they plan to position themselves in the fast-moving world of Moocs, it seems a good time to take stock of the phenomenon and to examine its trajectory.

So what attracts academics to experiment with the model? Sainani had two aims in developing her course. First she wanted to offer something to many more people. She had already made some of her teaching tools freely available online before her involvement with Coursera because she loves “the idea of sharing … material”. Why not take it a step further?

Second, creating a Mooc would help her to “flip the classroom” in her traditional teaching on campus. This involves providing course materials such as lectures online so that students can follow and work through them in their own time and thus free up face-to-face class time for deeper discussion, writing exercises and other more personal, tailored interaction. “It is great for a writing course to be able to use the class time for writing and editing as opposed to me just lecturing,” she explains.

So when Stanford made available grants to fund IT support for academic staff who wanted to develop and run online courses, she applied. Having won one, she visited Coursera’s offices every Friday, where she filmed footage in its video lab that was later edited by Stanford staff.

It was not easy to design online assessment tasks for a course on this scale that is writing-based - after all, “it is not like a math or computer science course where there is a clear answer”. However, that very challenge helped to pique her interest. Students on the Mooc took specially tailored assignments. They marked one another’s work using peer assessment technology developed by Coursera. Completed assignments were automatically distributed to five other learners; these five learners marked the work and the grades they gave were then averaged. Marks were also awarded for participating in the process of peer assessment.

Although she received “a lot” of help, putting the course together was time-consuming. “I didn’t realise how much time it was going to take,” she admits. But thousands completed the Mooc and many expressed how much they appreciated “having this material out there”. And back on campus, she predicts that the “flipped classroom” model will take off, repaying her investment in time. “Ultimately a lot of teaching on campus is going to look like this (in future), so getting the content up has value in the long run.”

The story of the first truly “massive” Mooc has already become the stuff of legend: an incredible 160,000 learners signed up for a course on artificial intelligence run in October 2011 by Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford, and Peter Norvig, director of research at Google. The students came from 190 countries including India, South Korea, New Zealand and Azerbaijan. It was such a hit that Thrun decided to co-found Udacity, an online education company.

Academics direct the content of Moocs but most of them are served up by Mooc platforms, the largest being the Silicon Valley-based for-profit start-ups Coursera and Udacity and the non-profit edX, which was founded by MIT and Harvard (see table).

Institutions outside the US have also caught Mooc fever. In the UK, the University of Edinburgh and the University of London’s International Programmes arm have signed up to Coursera. Both will begin offering a handful of Moocs from early next year, and each boasts that tens of thousands of learners have already pre-registered (they stress that their Moocs include less content than an undergraduate course).

But aside from the mind-boggling numbers of students who have signed up to Moocs, is there much that is really new about them? High- calibre institutions have experimented before with offering non-credit courses online. Notable disasters in the mid-2000s range from the for-profit Fathom portal, led by Columbia University, to the not-for-profit AllLearn (Alliance for Lifelong Learning) collaboration between Yale, Stanford and the University of Oxford.

There is nothing new in universities offering teaching resources free online, either. From video and audio recordings of lectures to reading lists, many academics already archive educational material on the web where it can be accessed for free as an open educational resource. Moocs, however, are different in that they are structured courses that run over set periods with cohorts of students who are taught by instructors and who receive feedback, says Michael Horn, co-founder and executive director of education at Innosight Institute, a non-profit thinktank. “It isn’t like a tape of a lecture…It is an original course packaged for online to attract hundreds of thousands of students - a volume play that we haven’t seen in this space.” Unlike OERs, Moocs cannot be reused under open licence by anyone who wants to do so.

And, despite the aura of innovation around Moocs, critics do not see much that is novel in teaching methods on many courses - there is little that is pedagogically adventurous about the instructional model commonly used in a Mooc, in which a student views a lecture on a computer. Advocates “are pretending it is all new but it is old pedagogy”, claims Sir John Daniel, an expert in open and distance learning, author of the report Making Sense of MOOCs: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility and a former vice-chancellor of The Open University.

Much has been made of the potential for Moocs to disrupt traditional forms and models of higher education. By expanding high-quality tertiary education to huge numbers of learners for free, Moocs could, it has been claimed, challenge some universities’ business models and potentially push down the cost of higher education. Under this scenario, the elite universities that will always have a surfeit of students willing to pay for a campus experience are the least likely to be threatened. But other institutions could find themselves squeezed, say experts. “If I were the University of Phoenix, I would be a bit worried,” Daniel says. “I think this could finally put really serious downward pressure on the costs of higher education.”

Moocs are also seen as having the potential to reinvent campus learning through the flipped classroom model. Although this is currently taking place on a relatively small number of courses, scaling up the model could have far-reaching implications, says William Lawton, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a UK-based research organisation, and co-author of the report Moocs and Disruptive Innovation: The Challenge to HE Business Models. He can envisage a scenario under which different universities running courses with similar content (large first-year courses, for example) might come together and subscribe to a shared online platform. He imagines these institutions’ students all viewing the same online lecture before undertaking separate tutorials on their campuses. “If that actually happens, it could be really profound,” he says - adding that it could also lead to academic job losses.

Universities’ reasons for developing Moocs are many and varied. Stated reasons include providing the world with better access to high-quality education - and no doubt there is an image boost associated with that - yet Moocs have not sprung from a premeditated plan to achieve this, states Kevin Kinser, associate professor in the School of Education at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Moocs were created by excited faculty members who began to experiment, he says.

Some institutions view Moocs as potential recruitment and marketing tools to reach new students, particularly those overseas, who may be interested in undertaking traditional degree programmes, perhaps at branch campuses. University of London International Programmes, which offers degrees via distance learning, made a strategic decision to offer Moocs as part of a bid to catch the attention of individuals in developing countries whom it might not usually reach. The idea is to give them a “taster” of its courses, explains Jonathan Kydd, dean of international programmes. The university hopes that its Mooc move will translate into greater uptake of its international programmes.

As for Stanford, its involvement in Moocs developed out of individual and institutional interests. Academic staff members wished to interact with many more students and to share their passions, and the university wanted to explore the ways in which online technology might help to improve its traditional campus-based courses, says John Mitchell, the vice-provost for online learning. Moocs, he explains, are “a means for faculty to experiment, learn about the technology and become better at it”.

Fear of being left behind is no doubt another motivator. There is, Daniel says, certainly an element of “Goodness, if Harvard is doing it we had better get in”.

Whatever its origins, the “Mooc frenzy” has been described as “irresponsible” by The Open University’s Bean. This is probably because one of the biggest issues is how to generate revenue. Kinser notes: “Moocs represent the ultimate in economies of scale but we are still trying to figure out what the financial model is for this.” Daniel claims that “no one really wants to face up to (the question of) how you actually make money out of this”. The models suggested have included charging students for certificates of completion (which thus far have been provided for free), charging students to sit proctored (invigilated) final exams administered by testing and assessment companies and job placement services under which employers pay a Mooc platform to recruit its students.

Coursera currently hands out unbranded certificates but plans in future to offer university-branded ones for a small fee, a proportion of which will be passed to institutions, says Andrew Ng, its co-founder and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab. The company is also piloting a job placement service and is licensing the courses to other universities that wish to offer them to their own students.

Non-profit edX is considering charging students for its certificates, too. Fees would be about $100 to $150 (£63-£95), according to its president, Anant Agarwal. In September, edX also announced an agreement with Pearson VUE, part of the publishing giant Pearson, to offer learners the option of taking invigilated final exams. And the organisation is considering introducing a job placement scheme.

Udacity, meanwhile, already offers invigilated final exams for its highly popular Introduction to Computer Science (CS101) course at a cost of $89. It runs a job placement service and so far about 350 companies have signed up to receive learners’ CVs. But its “biggest revenue source” so far, Thrun told Times Higher Education, has been its partnerships with high-tech companies interested in helping to build and run classes to create a “talent pool that matches what is needed in the workforce” - it recently announced deals with six, including Microsoft and Google.

It is clear that money must be made somehow, says Ian Bogost, who holds a chair in media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is anxious about the involvement of private ventures in Moocs. “I don’t trust Silicon Valley, and I don’t think anybody else should,” he says. “The purpose of a for-profit that is venture-backed in Silicon Valley is to grow as quickly as possible and to exit providing a considerable financial benefit for its investors - and that goal may not be compatible with education.” He would rather see universities take the lead.

The question of whether learners will be able to gain academic credit for the courses they complete is also key to the future of the Moocs movement. “This is the really interesting bit, and it’s still in its infancy,” argues Lawton.

No Mooc on offer right now allows learners to earn credits towards a degree but that will soon change. The University of Texas system, which is joining edX, says it plans to in the near future. The University of Washington is developing several Moocs via Coursera and it says that students will have the option of paying a fee for an “enhanced instructor-led version” that leads to credit.

Some universities have begun to credit students for completing Moocs run by different institutions. The University of Helsinki, for example, is offering credit for a Coursera class on human-computer interaction as a substitute for its own local course on the same topic (although students must pass an exam administered by Helsinki to claim the credit). Colorado State University’s Global Campus, an independent arm of the Colorado State University system that offers online degrees, said in September that it would give transfer credits to students who complete Udacity’s CS101 course and pass the invigilated exam. In October it emerged that Coursera had struck a licensing deal to offer several of its courses to the private Antioch University, in the US. Antioch plans to offer versions of the Moocs for credit as part of a bachelor’s degree programme. The partnership could “reduce student costs to complete a four-year degree and expand course offerings through free online courses offered by the highly respected universities that have partnered with Coursera”, says an Antioch press release.

As these examples hint, a “whole new industry” could grow up around packaging Moocs and organising credit for students who complete them, and it could be spearheaded by companies and organisations that do not teach, Daniel predicts. This leads him to believe that it is only a matter of time before more elite institutions are forced to do something about offering their own credits. “It is just such a contradiction to say, ‘You can study this and even if you get full marks we won’t give you credit’,” he says. He wonders what will happen when a person who has been awarded a credit for a Mooc by another institution arrives at the doors of the elite institution that ran the course and asks it to recognise the credit. “They can hardly say, ‘We won’t accept the credit for this course that came from us in the first place’.”

Another issue for Moocs is high dropout rates. More than 90 per cent of those who sign up may not complete, says edX’s Agarwal. Of the 38,000 students who registered for Sainani’s Mooc, 3,284 completed the course and earned a certificate. The platforms are trying hard to improve completion rates. Although a high proportion of students might sign up to a Mooc simply to dip a toe in the water, having only a weak intention of completing the course, there are concerns that this lack of staying power may in some cases reflect the quality of education on offer. “We trust these elite institutions will offer elite programmes of study but we don’t have any way of verifying that assumption,” Kinser says. Others complain that Moocs will increase the “standardisation” of learning and undermine teaching by leaving little room for adaptation to a particular local circumstance, country or culture.

When the novelty of being able to take a Harvard course for free wears off, will Moocs disappear like some other previous online ventures? “Some savage Darwinian evolution will take place … but this is too big to collapse into nothing,” Daniel says.

Moocs are currently in their “irrational exuberance” phase - one that every technological innovation goes through - says Rahul Choudaha, director of research at World Education Services, but “they have enough strength and value to a particular segment of students and institutions that they will stabilise to a sustainable model over time”. Lawton thinks that Moocs are significant and may turn out to be a “real game changer” for some individual universities but “I don’t think it is the end of higher education as we know it”, he adds.

For now, the fate of Moocs rests with the academics who lead their creation and delivery. At Stanford, Sainani is not sure that she would run her Mooc again without a dedicated teaching assistant. Although she would be spared the hours and the effort required to create the videos and other teaching materials from scratch, discussion forums would still need monitoring if the course were repeated. After all, she points out, a course of 38,000 students “can’t quite run on its own”.



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