Do MOOCs Revolutionize Higher Education?

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Before the Digital Age, distance learning appeared in the form of correspondence courses in the 1890s–1920s and later radio and television broadcast of courses and early forms of e-learning. Typically fewer than five percent of the students would complete a course. The 2000s saw changes in online, or e-learning and distance education, with increasing online presence, open learning opportunities, and the development of MOOCs. By 2010 audiences for the most popular college courses such as "Justice" with Michael J. Sandel and "Human Anatomy" with Marian Diamond were reaching millions.

This article aims to answer the question: Do Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) revolutionize higher education?

What do you picture when you think of a university classroom?

Four walls, hopefully some windows, definitely some chairs, desks, some kind of whiteboard or chalkboard, maybe even a podium for the professor. Whiteboard markers or chalk, a board eraser. Today you would expect to find a computer in each university classroom. It is common for professors to use computers connected to monitors to provide visual content in their lectures and lesson plans. 

With the development of online learning, the university classroom has undeniably changed. Classrooms are no longer limited to the confines of physical space. Today with a computer and internet connection, you could earn course credits or entire degrees in higher education. In a 2018 report published by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students who took at least some of their courses online grew by more than 350,000, nearly 5.7 percent. The proportion of students enrolled exclusively online grew to 15.4% or about one in six students. 17.6% of students mixed online and in-person courses and 33.1% of all students had taken at least one online course.

So, what exactly are MOOCs?
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer free online college-level classes open to anyone, and everyone, who wants to take them. 

Ask Anant Agarwal, CEO and Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and he will say, 

Education really hasn't changed in the past 500 years. The last big innovation in education was the printing press and the textbooks. Everything else has changed around us. You know, from healthcare to transportation, everything is different, but education hasn't changed. 

Given education has been calcified for 500 years, we really cannot think about reengineering it, micromanaging it. We really have to completely reimagine it. It's like going from ox carts to the airplane. Even the infrastructure has to change. Everything has to change. We need to go from lectures on the blackboard to online exercises, online videos. We have to go to interactive virtual laboratories and gamification. We have to go to completely online grading and peer interaction and discussion boards. Everything really has to change.

In this TEDx talk from 2013 Agarwal expresses the desire to “completely reimagine” education as it is. For “everything to change”, everything—from the way professors instruct their students to the way that students interact with each other—must go online. This might sound extreme but maybe we should hear him out. He argues that this can be done through the use of MOOCs. 

What are the benefits of MOOCs according to Agarwal?
1. Active learning – rather than having students listen to lectures, students work with sequences of videos and interactive exercises
2. Self-pacing – students can set their own pace when it comes to absorbing lessons
3. Instant feedback – instant feedback turns teaching moments into learning outcomes
4. Gamification – gamification techniques to learning encourage students to focus
5. Peer learning – discussion forums help students communicate with each other from any place and at any time, to teach each other and answer each other’s questions

Now, this was over six years ago. It is time to ask: What have MOOCs meant for higher education?
4 Ways in which MOOCs have made a difference
Willem van Valkenburg of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, in a keynote address at an education conference in Thailand, suggested that we are forgetting the “real story” about how MOOCs quietly reshape education. Van Valkenburg argues that MOOCs change education in four ways.

First, students can now earn credit towards specific degrees which allows students enrolled in one university to take for-credit MOOCs from other universities. This allows for flexibility.

Second, Van Valkenburg states that the fact that the majority of MOOC users are in their late 20s and older shows that MOOCs address a previously unmet need for continuous education among graduates. 

Third, the introduction of MOOCs has opened up the pathway for top universities to use more blended learning which means teachers can teach to large quantities of students online and facilitate on-campus interaction in a more intimate setting.

Fourth, the MOOC audience is international and diverse. These programs are available as long as you have internet access which means they are accessible virtually anywhere. 

3 Ways in which MOOCs have failed to live up to their promise
Justin Reich and José A. Ruipérez-Valiente, two professors at MIT argue that MOOCs fell short of their mission of transforming education worldwide. From 2012 to 2018, Reich and Ruipérez-Valiente gathered data on all MOOC participants from MIT and Harvard University which spans 5.36 million university students in 12.67 million course registrations. They report three main findings. 

First, there is a low rate at which students complete the MOOC courses. Completion rates at MIT and Harvard fell over time with only 3.13% completing courses in 2017-2018. The incredibly small rate at which students complete the MOOC courses demonstrates that the MOOC courses are unable to retain student interest.

Second, their data shows that 68.7% of enrolled students came from countries with very high levels of development, 15.8% came from countries with high development, 14% came from countries with medium development, and 1.43% came from countries with low development. “Rather than creating new pathways at the margins of global higher education,” the authors wrote, “MOOCs are primarily a complementary asset for learners within existing systems.”

Third, enrollment in MOOCs has declined each year since 2012.

Consistently low retention rates, a lack of ability to bring more higher education access to developing countries, and enrollment declines demonstrate that the MOOCs were unable to live up to their name.

So, are MOOCs truly revolutionary?
Our final answer is: No, MOOCs are not revolutionary. With low retention rates, a lack of ability to increase rates of higher education in developing countries, and decreasing enrollment rates, MOOCs fail to live up to their original promises of revolutionizing higher education. However, MOOCs do take steps in the right direction in terms of encouraging top universities to provide different kinds of online learning programs for their students. 

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