2016 – the year of MOOC hard questions

The Clones are breaking in to the Super Mario block

We had 2012 as the year of the MOOC, 2014 was probably the year of the MOOC maturation, and I’m calling it for 2016, the year that university Vice Chancellors and Principals start looking and saying “what are we getting for our investment again?”

This critical questioning has started somewhat, but largely money and university cooperation is still flowing. But I think we’ll have had long enough in 2016 to see if those investments have paid off. Here are five key areas that I predict we’ll see reported on, and will cause an investment rethink:

  • MOOC education won’t be as cheap as envisaged – now we are seeing pricing models for MOOCs, it turns out that in order to amass enough credits for a degree, you’d end up paying quite a lot. The OU charges £15,000 for a full 360 point degree. That gives you tutor support, a whole dedicate support system, purposely designed material, and highly valued, recognised award. It’s difficult to match credit points with MOOCs, as they’re not couched in that way. But let’s say the Coursera specialisations are similar – currently their data science one is £307. You’d probably need about 12 of these to match a degree, so getting towards £4K. Still a lot cheaper, but you wouldn’t get a student loan, would lack all that support and they’re not really recognised. Maybe that price difference is sufficient, but it certainly isn’t the “educate the world for free” model.
  • Producing MOOCs is expensive – initially, and rather naively, many thought MOOCs would be cheap to produce (like they thought e-learning would be cheap back in the late 1990s). Surprise! They’re not that cheap, particularly because unis often want them to be showcase products, rather than small scale experiments. This report put the cost between $152K and $244K. That racks up if you’re producing a lot of MOOCs.
  • They’re not effective recruitment avenues – there’s lots of articles about how MOOCs could drive recruitment for universities, but little data on how many actual registrations they have led to. They have had long enough now to see whether they are effective marketing tools, and can compare them against other outlets (eg advertising) in pure dollars spent per recruited student. I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect we’ll start to see that they are not that effective. At the OU we found that iTunes U for instance was very ineffective at driving traffic to the university itself, because the iTunes brand trumped the University one effectively. This was very different for OpenLearn, which was all about the OU and much more effective. I think a similar ‘MOOC platform trumps university brand’ battle may arise with MOOCs.
  • They’re not reaching the desired audiences – there has been much made of the typical demographic of MOOCs being highly qualified, independent learners from a well off background. This has been rather embarrassing for the whole “democratise education” rhetoric, as it may actually increase inequality. It might have been supposed to be an initial effect – these are the types of people who are early adopters and it will the diffuse to other populations. We now have had long enough to see if this occurring. Maybe it is, but I haven’t seen any research to that effect.
  • It may be a zero sum game – related to the previous point, on their initial presentation a MOOC may get high numbers of enrolments but this then usually decreases for subsequent ones. Many learners take multiple MOOCs. So once you’ve got the hardcore MOOCers, and those with a particular interest in that subject, not many new learners are there to be found. The MOOC business model will rely on large numbers across multiple presentations.

I’m not predicting MOOCs will disappear. I think what the above indicates is that MOOCs will need to be targeted to meet very specific aims and audiences. Whether this more finessed approach is viable with the external, commercially driven enterprises who rely on a continual intake of new courses and learners remains to be seen. As with OER, which is somewhat ahead of MOOCs in terms of maturity, they will need to adapt to meet the goals of the sector, and reflect on those initial claims. I would argue that anyone developing MOOCs now looks at these 5 factors (at least) and ensures that they have answers for them. Sorry MOOC companies, I think the honeymoon is over.


  • Una Daly

    While I agree with much of what you have to say, I think there are a few additional factors to consider. One is that OER and MOOCs do not have to be seen as existing in separate spaces. Quite a number of Open Education Consortium (OEC) member institutions have developed MOOCs with entirely openly licensed materials on several platforms including edX. Through surveys with our members who developed through the OECx (OEC/edX) partnership agreement, we have seen reduced costs by re-using OER. It depends on how much of the OER can be re-used and how much new material needs to be generated. Developing videos which largely didn’t exist in earlier versions of OER/OCW does add expense requiring both faculty and instructional technology staff time.

    We don’t have enough data at this point to know what the click through is for those who take a MOOC from our member institutions and who then enroll for an actual certificate/degree but I suspect it is low. MOOCs have been moving into a corporate business model for several years now where low-cost verified certificates can be earned right on the MOOC platform and full pathways are now available particularly in technical areas. For some learners, these certificates and job networking available through the MOOC platform providers may be sufficient and therefore eliminate the desire/need for a degree from an accredited academic institution.

    • admin

      Hi Una! On your first point, I actually considered adding one to mine when writing which was along the lines of “MOOCs are becoming OER”. Which is not a bad thing, and if we can secure the sort of funding for OER we have for MOOCs then hurray. But the reason it might lead to a disinvestment in MOOCs is that this wasn’t what they (Vice Chancellors etc) signed up for.
      On your second point, I agree, MOOCs might be useful for some specific technical professional development. But that may not be a big enough market. And as you say that might not lead to enrollments, so why would unis put effort into them? I think for professional bodies, MOOCs might be a great option.

  • AFilreis

    Good MOOCs need not be expensive. Perhaps questions about costs will cause more good MOOCs to be created. I would suggest that the more interactive and collaborative a MOOC is, the less it costs.

    • admin

      No, that’s true. But they have become expensive because unis stopped viewing them as experimental and started viewing them as shop window pieces. Also the coursera type framing of MOOCs led to more expensive ones. I think we might well see a reining in on this and perhaps a return to more low cost, experimental ones aimed at niche audiences.

      • Al Filreis

        Thanks for the reply. Yes – alas – many have become expensive in part because decision-makers mistakenly assume that “high production values” are important to the participants’ experience of connecting with the material and with other learners. I hope as you do that we return to less expensive courses that use the inexpensive tools that are already set up in almost every platform (such as discussion forums). That’s where the value is. – Al Filreis

  • AFilreis

    “They’re not effective recruitment avenues – there’s lots of articles about how MOOCs could drive recruitment for universities, but little data on how many actual registrations they have led to. They have had long enough now to see whether they are effective marketing tools, and can compare them against other outlets (eg advertising) in pure dollars spent per recruited student. I don’t have any data on this, but I suspect we’ll start to see that they are not that effective.”

    My experience suggests that you are wrong. And since you “don’t have any data on this,” why make the negative guess?

    I suppose it depends on how narrowly you defined “recruitment.”

    • admin

      Do you have any figures, eg what percentage of MOOC students go on to sign up for a formal degree programme? this is what I mean by hard questions. If unis are spending this amount of money, then they should be able to get reliable answers to these questions. The reason I made the negative guess was because I think if there was good news here (eg 20% of students then went on to sign up for formal study, we would have heard about it very loudly.
      I’m defining recruitment here as going on to register for formal study with the university who provided the MOOC.

      • Al Filreis

        Thanks very much for replying. I have taught a free, non-credit open course for four years, and my aims have never been connected to recruitment in this well-defined/narrow sense. Very few participants are at a stage of life or career where seeking a degree program is relevant. Nor has anyone ever suggested to me that that would be a measure of success for my teaching. My experience of “recruitment” includes ongoing (beyond-the-course) discussions about the importance of the arts and humanisitic study; a powerful community of advocates of same; a real interest in other programs I host and sponsor on/from my campus; a willingness to donate to support such programs; enthusiasm over the inclusive, interactive, not-impersonal mode of the course. The latter helps in response to arguments against the value of such open courses. Al Filreis

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