MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education (March 2013)

Below is the executive summary of this Cetis publication I wrote with Dr Li Yuan. Our best effort at summaring the phenomena that is MOOCs.

The focus of the report
This report sets out to help decision makers in higher education institutions gain a better understanding of the phenomenon of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) and trends towards greater openness in higher education and to think about the implications for their institutions. The phenomena of MOOCs are described, placing them in the wider context of open education, online learning and the changes that are currently taking place in higher education at a time of globalisation of education and constrained budgets. The report is written from a UK higher education perspective, but is largely informed by the developments in MOOCs from the USA and Canada. A literature review was undertaken focussing on the extensive reporting of MOOCs through blogs, press releases as well as openly available reports. This identified current debates about new course provision, the impact of changes in funding and the implications for greater openness in higher education. The theory of disruptive innovation is used to help form the questions of policy and strategy that higher education institutions need to address.

Making sense of MOOCs
MOOCs are a relatively recent online learning phenomenon, having developed from the first early examples five years ago, they are now generating considerable media attention and significant interest from higher education institutions and venture capitalists that see a business opportunity to be exploited. They can be seen as an extension of existing online learning approaches, in terms of open access to courses and scalability, they also offer an opportunity to think afresh about new business models that include elements of open education. This includes the ability to disaggregate teaching from assessment and accreditation for differential pricing and pursuit of marketing activities.

Analysis of MOOC initiatives
The opportunity that MOOCs offer for massification of courses has generated significant interest from governments, institutions and commercial organisations. A number of bespoke MOOC platforms have been developed and offer courses independent of or in collaboration with universities. A growing number of institutions have been involved in engaging and experimenting with MOOCs for the purpose of expanding access, marketing and branding, as well as the potential of developing new revenue streams. Motivations for learners to participate in MOOCs are varied, and many struggle to engage with courses and keep motivated in the context of an online learning environment. The market value of certification of courses, short of credit as part of traditional institutional awards, has yet to be determined. Other potential business models are being developed but need further work to establish them.

Issues and Challenges for MOOCs
Over recent years there has been a significant change in societal adoption of Internet technologies with extensive proliferation and use in more economically developed countries. However, in terms of the proliferation of MOOCs as an educational approach, there is a risk that the current enthusiasm is being driven by a self selecting group of highly educated, IT literate individuals who are able to navigate the sometimes complex, confusing and intimidating nature of online learning. In general, there are concerns about the pedagogy and quality of current MOOC courses, with a clear distinction between process and content-based approaches. The motivation for some MOOCs is a philanthropic one and for others a business proposition. However, in both cases, there is the challenge of finding a viable model that allows for sustainability of MOOC provision.

MOOCs as disruptive innovations
The theory of disruptive innovation (Bower and Christensen, 1995) offers an explanation as to why some innovations disrupt existing markets at the expense of incumbent players. In this case, there is a significant question for higher education institutions to address: are online teaching innovations, such as MOOCs, heralding a change in the business landscape that poses a threat to their existing models of provision of degree courses? This possibility is brought about through the combination of wider societal adoption of communication and, particularly, Internet technologies, changing funding models and the development of new business models that leverage this opportunity. If this is the case, then the theory of disruptive innovation suggests that there is a strong argument for establishing an autonomous business unit in order to make an appropriate response to these potentially disruptive innovations.

Implications for higher education
The current UK political administration has continued the course set by the government with an even more radical agenda to allow new, for-profit providers to enter the higher education market. These include, changes to funding whereby students pay most of their tuition fees, through student loans, and changes to national quality assurance measures so that new players can enter the market place and offer new, differentiated provision including more for-profit universities. There is also an opportunity here for open education where less traditional lecturing and more facilitative and guided approaches to education can find a place in this new landscape of online learning where increased fees for established models may act as a deterrent to students.

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