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Massive Open Online Courses - (A Further Look)

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The biggest problem for MOOCs is finding a way to monetize them.  Even though MOOCs can enable one professor to reach thousands of students, the technology and platforms are not free, nor is the professor's time.  Most MOOCs are free right now, and many colleges and experts are trying to find ways to recover costs or make a profit while using them.



The posting below is another look at the role of MOOCS in higher education that also includes a nice review of the history of online education in general.  It is from  Chapter 1 - Higher Education at Risk , in the book, Higher Education at Risk: Strategies to Improve Outcomes, Reduce Tuition, and Stay Competitive in a Disruptive Environment, by Sandra Featherman. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. []. Copyright © 2014 by Stylus Publishing, LLC.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Note-Taking Pairs



Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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Massive Open Online Courses - (A Further Look)


MOOCs are here to stay.  They may or may not solve all of the problems of higher education across the globe, but the technology to deliver courses to tens or even hundreds of thousands of pupils at a time is here, and its power cannot be denied. 

There are professors who are going to want to offer MOOCs, and students who will want to take them.  Whether they can find delivery platforms or business models that will enable them to be economically feasible is still a question that is being explored. 

Although huge numbers of people have signed up for some MOOCs, the evidence is that most of those who enroll never even start a single assignment, and that very few complete the courses (Lewin, 2013). 

"The best thing about the MOOCs is that they have validated online education," the president of Southern New Hampshire University told me.  "There is virtue seen in them now that the elite universities have committed to them." 

The president of a large nonprofit university, who did not want his name mentioned in connection with his response, told me, 

In the right setting, these can be fabulous.  For adult learners, and as a supplement for undergraduates, they can be useful.  I question the rush to MOOCs.  They are not realistic for most students, with their 90% dropout rates.  And if they are high quality, the costs are not substantially less than in-class courses.  My biggest worry is that some providers could cheapen the quality of what is offered. 

He added that the percentage of 18-year-olds who can manage an online course is minimal, in his opinion.  "The market is adults, and people who already have degrees, but want to extend their learning." 

Ever since the development of the electronic computer, college faculty have been seeking ways to increasingly connect with each other, and then with wider audiences.  Once they were connected through the Internet, scholars began to reach out to help each other by sharing ideas and advice.  Many began to post their syllabi online, so that they could illustrate to colleagues how they were approaching the teaching of their disciplines and learn from each other. 

For several decades, some courses have been offered online, but generally, most of the courses presented by faculty were visually unappealing, sometimes offering little more than talking heads and blackboard notes. Some for-profit providers partnered with faculty, especially at smaller colleges eager for the extra enrollment dollars that came with these shared revenue programs. The for-profit providers in the 1990s provided the delivery platforms and also frequently owned the rights to the content, regardless of whether they or the faculty developed the material. 

These companies were unable to offer academic credit for the coursework and thus needed academic institutions to partner with them.  They provided the delivery system, and the schools offered the credit for their courses.  This initially usually required at least some on-campus face time between the students enrolled in the courses and the faculty from the credit-offering college.  The face time could occur on weekends, or during a summer vacation week. 

Accrediting agencies began to crack down on these types of offerings, generally demanding more traditional faculty involvement or control over the content of the courses being offered. 

Given the inherent proclivity of faculty to share what they know, it was only a question of time before some professors began to put not just syllabi but whole course lectures online, for colleagues or interested persons anywhere to share.  Next, some professors began to put all of their lectures for a given course online, making them freely available to all.  They opened them up to unlimited enrollment, eliminating traditional course caps.  Not only did they put the lectures online, but they provided forums and notes. 

Then, in 2008, a number of major universities set up the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which now includes more than 250 universities and educational organizations.  The consortium is committed to providing free coursework across the globe. 

This desire to provide open access and share information and opportunities has undergirded much of the development of the web and its subsequent evolutions.  Freeware and shareware came along, for example, concurrent with and in response to proprietary software applications that were developed for PDAs (personal data assistants). 

MOOCs originally started as part of this type of movement, albeit MOOCs are specifically focused on providing expanded educational opportunities.  These open online courses use streaming video, forums, quizzes, and other interactive techniques not only to simulate live classroom experience, but to extend well beyond its reach.  Streaming video allows professors to offer materials with uplinks to audio, video, and all types of resources virtually, relatively simultaneously, and asynchronously. A person taking the class can participate anywhere; tune in anytime; set up his or her own shared networks with other users; and, most of all, learn at his or her own pace and demand. 

Advocates for MOOCs point out that developing the class modules will help the instructors build collections of well-developed presentations they make, which can be used for other lectures and opportunities.  Of course, many instructors have been doing just that with PowerPoint presentations for some time now. 

According to a MOOC wikispaces guide, benefits of offering MOOCs include the opportunity for the presenter to learn new things as well "thanks to the unknown knowledge that pops up as the course participants start to exchange notes on the course's study," and the ability to make connections "across disciplines and corporate/institutional walls" ("Benefits and Challenges of a MOOC," 2013). Challenges of using MOOCs include the fact that participation requires digital literacy, time and effort, and "self-regulation" and can feel "chaotic as participants create their own content" ("Benefits and Challenges of a MOOC," 2013). 

There are two other substantive problems.  One involves developing secure ways to test people who take these massive courses.  Given the rapid advances in technology, it is likely that methods of providing fingertip or eye scans, or other similar biometric methods, will be developed as MOOCs are being refined.  The second problem, providing course credit or certification, is already in the process of being solved, as colleges and businesses offering MOOCs and other online educational coursework break barriers to establish new models of offering and measuring learning. 

As of early 2013, only 2.6% of colleges reported having MOOCs, with another 9.4% in the planning stages.  Most institutions say they are undecided about using MOOCs, and a third have no plans to use them.  Most of the nonprofit institutions that are considering the use of MOOCs are research universities, perhaps because they are the only ones with deep enough pockets to finance their ventures (Allen & Seaman, 2013, pp.3, 8). 

During a webinar hosted by the American Council on Education (ACE) in May 2013, more than 300 academics from across the country were able to log in to a discussion about MOOCs by faculty who are using them either to teach with or to supplement their own classes.  The webinar dealt with issues questioning how students benefit from MOOCs, how colleges are integrating them into their curricula, and how the quality of MOOC learning experiences can best be assessed. 

One of the four panelists was Daphne Koller, cofounder of Coursera, Inc., and professor of computer science at Stanford University.  She talked about how valuable the open online courses have been for poor people in remote parts of our world as well as those with health-related issues, such as a student with autism who greatly valued his course offering.  She stated that more than 3.6 million students have now signed on for MOOCs, involving 374 courses, and pointed out that the certificates of completion of courses, even without credits, can help people access job opportunities.  She also noted that online courses can enable the kind of mastery learning that historically required personal tutoring. 

Elizabeth Allan, an associate professor of biology at the University of Southern Oklahoma and an ACE CREDIT faculty reviewer, talked about the multiple values of MOOCs, giving the example of an older, returning student who hoped to go to medical school, using a MOOC to strengthen his ability to do well in a face-to-face science class the following semester. Two community college representatives, Barbara Illowsky and Michelle Pilati, gave examples of the use of MOOCs in their colleges.  Illowsky argued that if 100,000 persons took a MOOC, even with a 94% dropout or failure rate, that would still mean 6,000 people would complete the course successfully.  "That is more students than I could teach in a lifetime in regular classes."

MOOCs certainly present a previously undreamed of opportunity to offer access to education to people wherever in the world they may live.  At the same time, there are cautions in the air.  One of the speakers at the webinar said that many community college faculty in California were avoiding collaborating with MOOCs because they feared the state would substitute MOOCs for faculty, as a way to deal with the need for more access to community college courses.  In addition, a Gallup poll released in May 2013indicated that only a miniscule 3% of college presidents strongly agreed that MOOCs could improve student learning, and only 2% strongly agreed that MOOCs will help to solve the financial challenges facing colleges (Gallup, 2013). 

Interestingly, when academic conferences discuss MOOCs, they do so in terms of the promise they offer, or ways to overcome the obstacles to using these open online courses most effectively, but they rarely discuss them as vehicles for competing with for-profit colleges, whose growth represents such a looming challenge for nonprofit higher education.  Undoubtedly, this is because the for-profits are still not seen as quality rivals, in any sense.  Instead, they are seen as purveyors of inferior programs to nontraditional students, many of whom are considered not college ready.  The dismissal of the for-profit sector could be considered somewhat warranted in the past, but it is a huge mistake for the higher education establishment to close its eyes to the potential of growing quality levels along with competitiveness developing in some of the for-profit arenas. 

The biggest problem for MOOCs is finding a way to monetize them.  Even though MOOCs can enable one professor to reach thousands of students, the technology and platforms are not free, nor is the professor's time.  Most MOOCs are free right now, and many colleges and experts are trying to find ways to recover costs or make a profit while using them. 

Coursera, Udacity, and edX

Several companies and consortia are in the process of developing ways to enable massive online courses and monetize them at the same time. Coursera founders Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller are both computer science professors at Stanford University. 

Presently, all of Coursera's courses are offered at no charge, but some changes are on the way.  Coursera has received about $16 million in venture capital for the company to expand.  It is developing a business model, because without a way to fund the investment in its work, Coursera cannot survive. 

During the ACE webinar, Koller (2013) stated that the 94% dropout rate from MOOCs is not really a failure rate and is misleading.  She said that many people log in with no real intention of actually completing the courses.  Of those who indicate seriousness by being what she termed signature students, she claimed there was a more than 90% successful completion rate. 

To fund its programs and growth, Coursera intends to own the platform on which it provides its classes. Charging students for providing credit for taking the classes may be a feasible way for Coursera to underwrite the costs of the programs.  Nonetheless, some of its for-profit potential competitors do not think the present business model will be able to fully fund the programs. 

Coursera has offered several hundred courses in the humanities, science, and engineering over the last few years.  Currently, it provides a platform for about eight courses, centering on computer science with some math, economics, and linguistics.  In February 2013, ACE endorsed five of its course offerings.  ACE has received funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore how such courses might help students complete college (Kolowich, 2013). 

ACE is not an accrediting agency, however, so it can endorse and recommend that its member colleges accept Coursera offerings for credit, but that does not ensure that they will do so.  In fact, some faculty groups have already gone on notice that they are resistant to acceptance of such credits. 

Udacity, MITx (developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and edX, the newer version of MITx, are differently structured but similar ventures looking for ways to turn open online courses into business models that can offer creditable coursework for reasonable costs while providing profit centers for the institutions that host them. 

Udacity is a private company, founded by another Stanford professor, Sebastian Thrun, who famously had 160,000 students everywhere on the globe enroll in his free online class in artificial intelligence in 2012.  The experience was life-changing for the professor, who said that he could not return to teaching at Stanford again, where he typically lectured to only 20 students in a class (Hsu, 2012).  ACE has been exploring recommending Udacity courses, in addition to those from Coursera. 

There has been continued conflict over the use of such courses and their potential entry into the marketplace is sure to create upheaval in traditional college enrollments.  Interestingly, Sebastian Thrun himself has decided to have Udacity now concentrate on offering corporate training.  An experiment in offering college courses at San Jose State University in 2013 was not successful.  Thrun said that his online education medium was not a good fit for the disadvantaged students targeted by the pilot (Straumsheim, 2013). 


Allen, I.E., & Seaman, J. (2013, January).  Changing course: Ten years of tracking online education in the United States: Executive summary.  Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC. 

Benefits and challenges of a MOOC. (2013, December 3). MoocGuide. Retrieved from

Gallup (2013, May 2). Gallup's college and university president's panel-inaugural survey findings.  Presidents bullish on their institution's future, but not on massive open online courses and higher education generally.  Executive Summary.  Retrieved from

Hsu, J. (2012, January 25).  Professor leaving Stanford for online education startup: Thrun's surprise announcement says he's taking his college courses to different level.  NBC News.  Retrieved from

Koller, D. (2013, May 28).  MOOCs and the completion agenda: ACE webinar.  Retrieved from

Kolowich, S. (2013, February 7). American Council on Education recommends 5 MOOCs for credit.  The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from

Lewin, T. (2013, April 30).  Colleges adapt online courses to ease burden.  New York Times, p. A1.  

Straumsheim, C. (2013, December 18).  Scaling back in San Jose.  Inside Higher Ed.  Retrieved from