Will MOOCs Massively Disrupt Higher Education?

Even as they grow in popularity, massive open online courses prompt debates about their impact on students, business model and role in the future of education.

Ellis Booker, Technology Journalist

August 30, 2013

10 Min Read

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Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have often been described as "revolutionizing" or "disrupting" traditional higher education during the past couple of years as interest in their potential has surged.

The common vision: Nimble Internet startups were destined to sweep through academia, the last walled garden, just as they had in the worldwide media markets years earlier.

In retrospect, the hyperbole and excitement around MOOCs was understandable. While "online education" -- broadly defined as a class delivered in part or whole across a computer network -- goes back decades, the scale of MOOCs, in which a single course can attract a quarter-million students, was new and breathtaking.

Most histories of MOOCs start with the 2008 course "Connectivism and Connective Knowledge," created by George Siemens, then an associate director for research and development with the Learning Technologies Center at the University of Manitoba, and Stephen Downes, an online learning and new media designer and commentator.

The course content was available through RSS feeds, and students could participate via threaded discussions in Moodle, blog posts, Second Life or synchronous online meetings. The course was taken by 25 tuition-paying students at the University of Manitoba; another 2,300 members of the general public registered for the course online, free of charge.

[ Incremental revolution: MOOCs Lead Duke To Reinvent On-Campus Courses. ]

The current surge in interest in MOOCs began in 2011 after Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig attracted 160,000 students to a free online course on artificial intelligence, based on a course they had taught together at Stanford. Norvig is Google's director of research, and Thrun until recently ran GoogleX, the innovation lab behind the self-driving car and the Google Glass wearable computer. Thrun went on to found Udacity, which along with rivals Coursera and EdX began offering large-scale courses in early 2012. Udacity produces its own courses, primarily on math and technology topics, while Coursera and EdX work with university partners and cover a broader range of subjects.

How the massive amounts of data pulled from these platforms can be used to iterate courses or inform pedagogy per se is an area of intense work by MOOC vendors and academic researchers alike.

As Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng is fond of pointing out, the MOOC has collected more educational data in one year than all the universities in the history of mankind. Coursera claims more than 4 million registered students.

Speaking at the KDD-2013 Conference on Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining in Chicago this August, Ng described an online machine learning course, in which 2,000 students submitted exactly the same wrong answer because they reversed the order of two steps.

Such errors can be found and addressed, Ng said, adding this wouldn't be feasible for a class with 100 students.

Even harsh critics of MOOCs like Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, think the MOOC vendors are onto something here, if they can use their scale to garner important data about student activities and outcomes.

"They're doing the best research in technology-aided education," he said. "If you have 150 students, and 2% miss something, it's easy to say it's a student issue. But if you have 10,000 and 2% miss something, that can be a catalyst for discussion."

A second defining characteristic of MOOCs has been their "open" aspect.

Traditional online instruction has been aimed at enrolled, paying students and offered for credit. Take George Washington University's online MBA healthcare degree, which costs the same as the standard, on-campus program.

Likewise, Howard University announced plans this summer to dramatically expand its online education offerings in a partnership with Pearson. But Howard University Online (HU-Online) will be degree-bearing and paid. Howard has no interest in MOOCs.

MOOCs, by definition, are free and open to all comers. A single course may include high schoolers, retirees, faculty, enrolled students and working professionals. Designing a course for this diverse student population is a challenge, as is making these courses "sticky" to the end. It comes as no surprise that while initial registrations for a MOOC can be enormous -- tens of thousands of sign-ups are common -- they tend to have much lower completion rates (typically in the high single digits) than credit-bearing, paid courses for enrolled college students. The MOOC industry has attracted the attention of learners, entrepreneurs, investors and universities, but it faces a complicated present and future.

Stakeholders (university presidents, MOOC executives, professors and instructors) have had to grapple with existential and thorny questions about the impact of MOOCs on students, business models and pedagogy itself.

There have been heated debates about how these platforms will change the value proposition in higher education (is a degree conferred online strictly equivalent to one earned by a student who attends the ivy-covered campus in person?), as well as important but largely unanswered questions about the effectiveness of this way of teaching, not to mention their ramifications on the socialization of students.

In fact, the vast majority of schools using MOOCs approach them as educational outreach and say they have no plans to offer degrees via MOOCs.

"The residential experience is core to having a Wesleyan degree," said Wesleyan University president Michael Roth. Weslyan just completed its first series of MOOCs with Coursera, including a literary survey course taught by Roth that enrolled 25,000 students.

Other schools are boldly forging ahead.

Take Georgia Institute of Technology, which in May announced plans to offer a new master's degree in computer science through a series of MOOCs with partner Udacity. AT&T contributed $2 million to the initiative, which it plans to use as a recruiting tool.

The degree will cost less than $7,000, a substantial discount on George Tech's standard costs ($45,000 for out-of-state students; $21,000 for Georgia residents) for the on-campus program. Like other Udacity courses, the ones developed for this program will be available for free on its website, but only tuition-paying students will get credit or have access to additional mentoring and support services. The hope of the pilot is to vastly increase the number of students accepted into the master's program, from 300 today to as many as 10,000 within three years.

As George Tech said in its FAQ about the program: "The development of massive-online educational models bring an unprecedented opportunity to extend access to high-quality education to an exponentially larger number of people, from around the world, than we can accommodate on a physical campus. Our educational mission as a public university is to explore and maximize such opportunities."

Getting all this right, while properly addressing long-range strategy questions, can be extremely tricky.

Morphing The Mission

"Online education has an identity problem," said Bonnie Stewart, a MOOC and social media researcher. Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer in the University of Prince Edward Island's faculty of education.

Stewart said there is a wealth of learning theory around online education as the basis of bold new pedagogical models. But MOOC entrepreneurs, while well-intentioned, have focused instead on "a delivery model, on education as a product that can be scaled," she said.

According to Stewart, there's an obvious appeal of this economic narrative, given the "decline in public funding and other challenges." School administrators look to venture capital-backed, Silicon Valley companies for what she calls "tech solutionism."

Amid criticisms like these, even some MOOC executives seem to be modulating their message.

"A medium where only self-motivated, Web-savvy people sign up, and the success rate is 10%, doesn't strike me quite yet as a solution to the problems of higher education," Udacity co-founder Thrun recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Lately, Udacity, Coursera and EdX have been begun offering their technology and services to academic partners for use with enrolled students, a twist on the initial MOOC model of massive, free, open-to-all platforms.

In May, Coursera invited 10 public universities to use its platform for non-MOOC online courses, charging the schools both a development and per-student fee, and specifying a course-content licensing approach, with a percentage going to Coursera.

Some have noted this appears to put MOOC operators in competition with long-established learning management system (LMS) vendors like Blackboard and Desire2Learn, companies with a head start on user interface design and data analytics.

Moreover, if massive scale ceases to be the defining aspect of MOOCs, then teaching effectiveness and a capacity to carry a high percentage of students to success will be.

Unfortunately, on this score, preliminary research isn't encouraging. A February survey of MOOC instructors by the Chronicle of Higher Education found a mean completion rate of just 7.5%.

This summer, San Jose State University suspended a program to offer credit-bearing courses in partnership with Udacity because of low pass rates in the spring term. However, Udacity CEO Thrun recently told InformationWeek he was on the verge of discovering the "magic formula" for success with these blended classes, based on summer term results from San Jose State, where in some cases online students did better than their on campus counterparts.

Plenty of observers remain optimistic about MOOCs and their power to transform the academy.

"I have no doubt that in the next 10 years, there will be valuable alternatives to the certification that we are currently holding onto as if it were the last vestiges of the core value that we represent," Lev Gonick, VP for IT services and CIO at Case Western Reserve University and CEO of OneCommunity, said in July in a keynote at the Campus Technology 2013 conference in Boston. "That is creative destruction at play, whether we choose to be resistant to it or whether we actually get in front of it. That is a choice that all of our institutions and organizations need to grapple with."


Many echo Gonick's emphasis on certification, arguing that the heralded "revolution" in education is hard to imagine without schools bestowing diplomas on MOOC students.

But such degree schemes don't exist today, and may never arise. Why would universities or colleges risk undermining their existing financial models or brands this way?

Nor are faculty supportive of the idea. A February survey of MOOC instructors by the Chronicle of Higher Education found 72% of the MOOC instructors answered "No" when asked if they felt their passing students deserved formal credit from their home institution.

Sensitivity to accreditation was best reflected in the May 2012 launch of EdX, the $60-million MOOC founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the time, both Harvard and MIT were adamant that their goal was to improve, not supplant, classroom education.

Coursera in January begun offering a service called Signature Track that, for a nominal fee, gives students in select classes the opportunity to earn a Verified Certificate for completing their Coursera course. "Signature Track securely links your coursework to your identity, allowing you to confidently show the world what you've achieved on Coursera," the company said at the time.

In addition, Coursera is working with the American Council on Education (ACE) to ensure that credits that come from the Signature Track program will be honored by many of ACE's 1,800 member schools, such as Amherst University, Boston University, Carnegie Mellon and others.

In July, one of the nation's largest public providers of online higher education, the University of Maryland University College, announced it would offer transfer credits to students who "demonstrate learning" from three, ACE-approved Udacity or Coursera courses. The university will verify students' competence in the math and science courses through standardized exams in a test center.

But in the end, the certification debate may be answered not by schools or groups like ACE, but by the marketplace. If companies and hiring managers start to regard MOOC certifications of job candidates in their hiring decisions the way they now value diplomas, the disruptive revolution in education will have arrived.

About the Author(s)

Ellis Booker

Technology Journalist

Ellis Booker has held senior editorial posts at a number of A-list IT publications, including UBM's InternetWeek, Mecklermedia's Web Week, and IDG's Computerworld. At Computerworld, he led Internet and electronic commerce coverage in the early days of the web and was responsible for creating its weekly Internet Page. Most recently, he was editor-in-chief of Crain Communication Inc.’s BtoB, the only magazine devoted to covering the intersection of business strategy and business marketing. He ran BtoB, as well as its sister title Media Business, for a decade. He is based in Evanston, Ill.

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