Moocs are a ‘distraction’, warns sector expert

Massive open online courses could prove a distraction to universities and cost them money, according to a consultancy that advises governments, investors and institutions on higher education issues.

June 20, 2013

Ashwin Assomull, a partner at the Parthenon Group, told a conference yesterday that the firm was going to “sit on the fence” over whether they could be beneficial to the sector or not.

A Mooc can be a cheaper way to provide education but “on the flip side it does reduce the revenues that are associated with introductory courses” he told the Gulf Education Conference and Exhibition in London.

The courses are “very accessible” for part-time or overseas students “but when you talk to employers across Asia, [and] a number of the emerging markets, employers don’t really rate any kind of online education as a signal of quality.”

“They still believe in bricks and mortar,” he said.

Moocs could allow students to get access to a prestigious degree “sitting in Iran” but when Parthenon had surveyed potential international students, it had found they wanted to go abroad for the experience of another country, not just the content of the course.

The prospect of a job in the country where they had studied was also a big lure for students too, he added.

Dozens of highly ranked universities from across the world have signed up to Mooc platforms in the US, such as edX and Coursera, while a group of predominantly British universities are gearing up to launch a rival service, FutureLearn, in the autumn.

Earlier in his talk, Mr Assomull cast doubt on the idea that the internet would fundamentally transform the university experience. He pointed out that 30 years ago, the rise of computers had fuelled speculation that in the future all education would be done through a laptop – predictions that had not come true.

“There will be changes…but the [Parthenon] view is that it isn’t as much of a game changer as a lot of experts predict,” he said.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (3)

The main things holding back moocs are the vested interests of the institutions and the inability of university staff to move beyond their own teaching experience.
Once the revenue sharing and articulation protocols normalize the benefits of the MOOC will outweigh the current negative chatter. If you consider the lot of a disoriented freshman walking into a 500 seat lecture (?) hall presided over by a disinterested TA who is covering for the charismatic-but often missing-professor and poorly designed online content as well as an outrageously priced textbook the comparison becomes a no-brainer. Lower-division GER courses that are highly definitional in nature are easy to assess, lend themselves to well designed learning objects, automated feedback, and tight analytics will demonstrate clearly that the student actually walks away from a MOOC (or whatever it's successor looks like) with usable knowledge. Those who derided online-and still do-often predicted the decline and disappearance of that learning format. They were proven wrong. We are looking at a natural evolution processes.
Robert, as a follow on to that, it is of course important to distinguish online education that has been going on for some time from MOOCs per se. Other online learning is of a high quality and can provide a rich learning experience for motivated, mature students. Many existing universities and of course the open university and it's ilk, have been doing so for some time, at a high fee yes, but also at a high quality. Other commercial providers, particularly in the US, however, have been of much lower quality and focused on profits, entry into federal funding mechanisms etc and hence led to a more tarnished reputation. Many of the MOOCs that get most of the publicity are interesting from the perspective that they often represent first forays into online learning by 'prestigious' institutions which had traditionally little activity in this space (or at least in which it was limited to only a small internal unit/centre) and many of the problems being reported are examples of these beginning to just learn what the reality is for online teaching and learning. Unfortunately, they are doing so by using their 'students' as experimental subjects, but then that's the no-fee contract, I guess. Shame though to see a lot of wheels being reinvented, painfully, by trial and error rather than by engaging with the extant literature and expertise that others in the field have. As for overall prestige versus bricks-and-mortar; probably still true. Universities often sell a brand rather than a product, as others have commented.

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