This is Part Two on MOOCs. Part One, ‘What are MOOCs?’ can be found here.

While Mass Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, have striven to provide an open and accessible education to an infinite amount of users, it’s important to look at the critiques of them. Are they really as good as they sound? Have they accomplished what they set out to do?

Critiques of MOOCs

While many people sign up for MOOCs, very few end up completing them. The dropout rate is huge and has been consistently so across all MOOCs. Stanford, MIT and UC Berkley all reported 80-95% dropout rates in 2012. However these numbers are from a 2012 study, and might not accurately represent the dropout rates of today.

This article however, does show today’s dropout rates, and it looks like the completion rates for MOOCs are currently around 5-10% across the entire industry. So not much has changed for MOOCs in that regard.

One of the realities of having free and open access to online courses is that many people will take one out of simple curiosity without any strong intentions of finishing it. It’s free, after all, why not try it out? This is far from being a bad thing - in fact, I’d argue the opposite, as the entire point of open education is that everyone has free access and can interact with it as they please - but it is a bit inconvenient for MOOCs trying to promote themselves through completion statistics.

The point of a MOOC is not necessarily completion, only that there be open access to learning for an infinite amount of people. All the same, retaining participants is a worthwhile goal that many MOOCs try to reach, and looking into where people tend to dropout can help improve the course.

Assessments of MOOCs are often done through quizzes and automated feedback. Some use peer feedback, which leads to concerns around plagiarism and cheating, especially where academic credentials are being offered. Perhaps it’s not surprising that plagiarism is widespread on Coursera, considering the anonymous peer reviews, and how easy it is for work to be stolen and passed off as someone else’s.

Another concern around Coursera is the level of involvement professors actually have with courses. It has been suggested that some professors are not directly involved in the process and are unaware of the content being published under their names. It’s not a stretch to imagine the kind of trouble that could cause academically, and it could lead to the value of these MOOCs dropping drastically.

One of the larger issues of MOOCs is that it’s difficult to have quality assurance of the courses. By nature, MOOCs provide a very individualistic learning experience. Often there is no one structure to the courses, and no instructor to lead them. Participants must be self-driven and open to this sort of learning if they want to succeed.

Many who would benefit most from a free education may not have ready access to a computer, or have the necessary level of digital literacy to navigate the courses. This has led to criticisms over the level of inclusivity and equality of access MOOCs provide, especially as being open and accessible is something of their mission statement.

Data taken of students, in the MIT and Harvard MOOCs show that users are almost entirely from high-income countries. According to the research “In 2017-18, the latest year for which statistics were available, more than two-thirds of enrolled students (68.7 percent, or 954,426 people) came from those countries categorized as having "very high" human development, and roughly another third combined (15.9 and 14 percent, respectively) for those in the high and medium categories. About 55,000 students, or 1.43 percent of the total, came from countries in the "low" category.”

One study shows that most people taking MOOCs already have a degree. It seems that MOOCs can be used by employers to ensure their employees are keeping up their professional development. Certificates of completion can be presented as proof. While this isn’t by any means a poor usage of MOOCs, it does go against the initial goal to extend accessibility of learning to those barred from traditional education.

As Open Learning content, MOOCs have to be monitored and updated on a regular basis to support themselves and to maintain their value. They need devices and data infrastructures just to be accessed, and this makes it difficult for them to be fully open and accessible on a global scale. Even if they were accessible, courses that do well in North America don’t necessarily do well internationally.

In fact a paper from edsurge goes so far as to suggest that MOOCs are neo-colonial. While at a glance, this might seem like a stretch, the fact that MOOCs are largely created by Western Institutions and offered worldwide as global education - with participants being treated as passive recipients of content - does suggest that non-westerners have nothing to offer.

More than half of all MOOCs are in english. The other most frequent languages offered are Mandarin and Spanish. This alienates a huge amount of the population, and forces users to adapt if they want access to this free, open, education. Long term, this could lead to an erasure of local knowledges and languages.

On a larger scale, education has an impact on our morals and values, and when the ownership of global education is largely within the hands of Western Institutions (some of which are for-profit) they get to define what is considered worthwhile knowledge and what isn’t. ‘Global Knowledge’ then, becomes largely ‘Western Thinking’.

Currently there are more regional MOOC platforms emerging that are designed for specific countries and languages. Trouble is, these MOOCs are labeled as ‘country-specific’ or ‘regional’, whereas MOOCs produced by Western Platforms are still considered to be universal.

Now that we’ve looked at some criticisms, let’s look at how MOOCs are evolving. Are they solving these criticisms? What are the trends?

As of 2018, the number of MOOC users has gone down. In 2018 over 100 million people had taken at least one MOOC, but only 20 million new users were added. This was less than the 23 million new users of 2017 and 2016.

What we saw in 2018 was an increase in MOOC based degrees. 30 Universities launched over 45 MOOC degree courses in 2018 - an increase from the seven universities in 2017 that launched 15 degree based courses. This is something we can expect to see continue. A MOOC degree will likely be a common credential presented to employers.

Coursera and other MOOC companies that partner with Universities, are in the ideal position to connect students, educators and employers, and having access and insight to all three allows them to create degrees and credentials that will ensure a satisfactory pipeline flow to employment.

As previously mentioned, MOOCs have to be monitored and updated on a regular basis to support themselves and to maintain their value. This requires quite a bit of work. It’s better for MOOCs to work within a system, partnering with institutions, companies, and governments whenever they can. With a network in place, MOOCs can maintain a high quality of support and value. Going forward, we can expect to see more MOOCs partnering up.

Micro-credentials - a grouping of courses packaged together - may not be as important as they have been in the past. People are more likely to complete sets of courses on account of their grouping, but this practice may not necessarily be useful. There is much confusion in the market as to what is an important credential and what is not, as there are many variations in courses - sometimes even on the same platform - and this makes it difficult to tell what will actually lead to job-readiness.

MOOCs have been called isolating, leaving students in a state of disconnect. Panopto uses videos to help students feel engaged in the material. Their ‘Weekly Wind-Up’ videos go over what was covered, and they address questions by sending personalized video responses to each student. Their goal is to make each student feel valued and to cater to their personal needs. Panopto also makes video recordings of instructors doing physical demonstrations with close-ups, multiple camera angles, and going through formulas step-by-step.

Part of the benefit of Panopto’s approach is that while the videos cover the basic material, instructors can then make deeper more meaningful connections in their conversations with students. It’s a way of freeing up the instructor’s time to allow that to happen. A quote from their website describes the teacher as “[...] a guide who works collaboratively with their students to facilitate learning.”

Many MOOCs are choosing to focus on only those learners who are committed to completing the course To do this, paywalls will be constructed to sort out those who are serious about completion and earning certificates, from those who are merely curious. While MOOC completion rates are around 5-10% across the whole industry, it has been noted that when there is a participation fee, or a cost to pay for a credential, completion rates go up to 50-60%.

The curriculum and the content itself will continue to be free, but if you want to to get feedback, instructions, or any sort of structure to the course, you’ll have to pay a price.

Looking at these trends, it’s unsurprising that there’s been some movement towards SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses). SPOCs are typically used on campuses by a small, local group of students, who can earn a credit towards their degrees. Courses like these can help expand the reach of Universities beyond the classroom. These smaller courses have the advantages of distance education where students can go at their own pace and make their own schedules, but they also allow for more intimacy, and with class sizes of 10-20 the instructors can have a one-on-one connection with each student.

On the other side of things, edX creator Robet Lue says the next step in MOOCs is to end the course structure altogether, and instead use something he calls a ‘Blockstore’. People often take a course to get at one specific skill. The idea with Blockstores is to break down content into smaller discrete pieces of learning - to cut out the fluff and padding of a course - and make it easier to get at exactly what you’re after.

Open edX will be breaking down its courses into these small assets, allowing users to search the platform for specific content on discrete pieces of learning. LabXchange will be bringing assets together and packaging them into pathways. With these in place, they can act as a learning management system to allow teachers to create their own courses.

All of the content on the platform will be available to everyone - so long as the creators agree to have it shared - which could enable teachers in classrooms to access materials, along with quizzes, homework and other supplements available on the platform.

So what can we predict for the future of MOOCs?

There are two main movements happening in the MOOC world. One is to work towards the initial mission statement of MOOCs: to make education free, accessible, open source, and infinitely scalable, reaching as many people as possible and offering as wide a range of courses as possible. The other movement will focus on smaller, more intimate courses that provide tailored feedback and personalized learning for a fee.

Open and Globally Accessible

There will be a push towards Open Education Resources and greater accessibility for everyone on a global scale. This means taking marginalized populations into account, and considering their unique needs, barriers and limitations. MOOCs will be offered in more languages, offer a wider variety of skills, and content will be made by wider groups of people to reach a broader, more diverse range of users. With more voices being heard worldwide, free, open education on a global basis can become a little closer to reality.

Whether or not this will be achievable is uncertain, but there will be a push in that direction nonetheless.

Degrees and packaged courses will break down into smaller pieces of learning, offering increasingly specific content on specific skills. The goal here is to cut out everything not deemed immediately necessary to the specific skill being taught - to cut out all the fluff a standard course might have - and to have each individual asset available on its own. Pathways will be created out of these assets that can be followed. This can allow for much greater flexibility as learners can create their own learning paths, and with everything on the platform being freely accessible, teachers can use content to supplement their courses.

Smaller, Discrete and Personalized

The other movement will focus on smaller more intimate courses that stress connectivity, participation, and mentorship. These try to mimic the sort of personal connection found in a classroom. A small classroom. These often partner with Universities and offer credit. They are expensive however, which makes them closer to other more traditional forms of Higher Education in that they exclude those without sufficient funds through paywalls.

We can expect to see more MOOC based degrees in this style, and with MOOCs partnering with Universities and Employers, they can create a perfect pipeline flow to employment, ensuring desired skills are being taught.

Personalized videos sent to each student may become more common, as they can foster a unique and valuable learning experience. MOOCs looking to keep their completion rates high will erect paywalls, restricting access only to those who are committed and determined to earn certification (and have the money to pay for it). By focusing on a smaller group of committed students, MOOCs will spend more time and resources on providing a higher quality of education to a select group of dedicated individuals.

While these smaller, intimate courses can certainly provide a more personalized and valuable experience, they leave the idea of education being open and free on an infinite scale far behind.