MOOCS: this revolution will wait

They’re more and more exclusive And they’re often full of already highly qualified students. Are Massive Open Online Courses failing to democratise education?

The figures are impressive. The online education platform Class Central reports that, between 2011 and 2015, 35 million people enrolled in at least one MOOC among those offered by more than 500 universities worldwide. Does that justify the name of the Massive Open Online Courses, which were meant to make higher education available to all?

Some feel that MOOCs have failed to deliver on their promise. “Several studies show that most of the people who take these courses already have roughly the equivalent of a master’s degree,” says Marc Trestini, professor and researcher at the University of Strasbourg and an expert in digital learning environments.

This has also been the experience at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), which spearheaded the MOOC movement in Europe by first offering courses back in 2012. Of those enrolled in the 50 or so online courses now available, 72% already hold a university degree. “The courses provided by universities like ours are difficult for anyone who doesn’t meet the prerequisites,” says Pierre Dillenbourg, head of the MOOC project at EPFL.

As Professor Trestini suggests, the prerequisites do not include theoretical knowledge alone. “To take a MOOC, you first have to know what it’s about and have the time required to complete the course. You also have to have some understanding of different learning strategies and be able to apply them.” So education remains a privilege, and online courses cannot completely overcome that. Was it idealistic to think that we could “democratise” education? Not according to Mr. Dillenbourg. “Democratisation means open access, not guaranteed success.”

Finding the right model

The leading providers of MOOCs, such as Coursera and edX, are trying to maintain open access to the online courses. The modules are still free but students are starting to have to pay to obtain their certificate. This concept was embraced at EPFL. “We offer courses that provide useful skills for the job market. Students are willing to pay for a certificate. But we have to focus on how much the certificates generate to continue offering the rest for free,” Dillenbourg says. The Open University and the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom have recently introduced programmes that allow students to take MOOCs as part of their degree. Schools partnered with the German platform Iversity also have the opportunity to award course credits. But once again, students have to fish out their wallets to obtain official certification.

While trying to work out the right business model, online course providers are also struggling to define the educational model. MOOCs generally used to fall into one of two categories: xMOOCs, with a professor teaching students a subject, and cMOOCs, which take a more connectivist approach to learning. Today we hear a lot about SPOCs, or Small Private Online Courses, designed for a limited group of students with a more defined course structure.

Mr. Trestini thinks that online courses will move towards more teacher-directed approaches “because online users need structure”. But the educator fears that could erode their original mass appeal. “If we continue limiting MOOCs, we could eventually strip away the whole point. SPOCs are MOOCs for smaller numbers of students. They go back to the traditional forms of distance learning. But MOOCs were promising something else.”

For EPFL, diversification is the key. In addition to very academic-style MOOCs or MOOCs designed specifically for African universities, the Swiss institution has recently introduced a professional development programme. MOOCs “haven’t changed the world,” Pierre Dillenbourg admits, but he reiterates the positive aspects. “Students from 186 countries have been able to enroll in EPFL courses. MOOCs also give professors the opportunity to explore other educational approaches and find useful examples for their courses.”

Marc Trestini (professor and researcher at the University of Strasbourg), Pierre Dillenbourg (head of the MOOC project at EPFL)


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