Moocs: smaller universities fear missing out

Government report identifies friction in sector over online courses

September 26, 2013

A lack of appetite, capacity and opportunity is preventing less prestigious universities from offering massive open online courses, a government report has found.

Whereas “elite” institutions – particularly in the US – view Moocs as an opportunity to enhance their brand and target students for recruitment purposes, smaller universities fear that they will lose their market share as their better known rivals exploit the medium, the report says.

The Maturing of the Mooc, a literature review released by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to coincide with the launch of UK Mooc platform FutureLearn last week, also highlights friction within the higher education community between those who welcome Moocs’ potential to “shake up” learning and those who are critical of the pedagogic and student experience they offer.

It concludes that most analyses suggest that Moocs are “disruptive and possibly threatening” to existing higher education models and predict “dramatic imminent change as a result”.

“Some suggest, however, that the Mooc proposition lacks novelty, and the scale of Mooc impact, along with its potential to transform universities, may be over-hyped,” it adds.

While scepticism about the educational rigour of current Moocs remains, the report states that learners who have completed them are generally positive about their experiences. However, getting the most out of them “demands skill and aptitude in online social networking…baseline capabilities…not widely enough shared for Moocs to present a realistic format for many learners” at present.

David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said the report identified “the balance between enthusiasm and scepticism” about the courses and conceded that finding a viable business model for Moocs remained a “key challenge”.

“There are continuing disagreements within the higher education community about how significant Moocs are,” he told Times Higher Education, claiming that many who question their value point to “previous rounds of excitement about online learning which, by and large, failed to deliver”.

He added: “My personal view is that Moocs are significantly different from previous rounds.”

Mr Willetts cited advances in technology that allow for more effective analysis of data collected through the courses as one reason why Moocs would succeed where other models had failed.

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