Saturday, March 9, 2013

Are MOOCs a Real Challenge to the Residential Colleges and Universities?

I Just finished the five-week long MOOCs course titled “E-learning and Digital Cultures” taught by five instructors at the University of Edinburgh. This was my first MOOC experience and it was eye-opening and thought-provoking.

A total of 42874 participants registered for this course. However, it’s reported that only 17% of the participants were active in the last seven days before the course was over. About 60% of the respondents came either from “teaching and education” or reported themselves to be “students”. Over 60% of the entire respondent group has postgraduate level qualifications, and a further 35% have a university or college degrees. 

Course contents included video clips and reading materials. There was discussion forum for the topic covered each week. Participants were also encouraged to conduct discussions through Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, the instructors also organized a couple of “hangouts” through Google+.

The final assessment for this course included a digital artefact and assessment of three artefacts of other participants.  

Reflections on this MOOC Experience.

Some years ago, when Internet-based distance education was getting popular, a lot of discussions were conducted on the impact of distance education on physical campuses. The emergence of MOOCs has aroused similar discussions and concerns.

Apparently MOOCs have both promises and pitfalls for disseminating knowledge. Promises include its potential to reach unlimited number of participants and unlimited boundaries; the second promise many of the MOOCs are “taught” by the renowned professors from the elite institutions; the third one is the any-time, any-place flexibility compared to face2face courses.
Yet, there are many problems MOOCs have to address. One, the quality of the MOOC education. Because of the large number of participants, it’s almost impossible for an individual to get attention of the course professors. In the course I took, many participants complained of the limited presence of the course instructors. As a matter of fact, the instructors did not participate in the discussions at all, and even they did, their posts would be buried by the hundreds of other posts. The second pitfall of MOOCs, as I see it, is the validity of the course evaluation. This problem also has something to do with the big number of participants. As far as the course I took, the evaluation assignments did not seem to be closely relevant with what was covered in the course. It seemed that even someone who had not taken the course, he/she could still make a digital artifact and assess other’s artifact. The third problem is the high rate dropout. This problem may have a lot to do with the fact that many participants took the course merely for gaining an experience rather than credit or certificate. Nevertheless, students’ motivation is a critical factor for the successful completion of the course.

Implications of MOOCs for ACS Institutions

 Finally, I want to raise the following questions to my colleagues for discussion. What’s the impact of MOOCs to residential colleges and universities? Are MOOCs a real threat to residential colleges and universities such as our ACS institutions? What can we, as a consortium, do to meet the challenge posed by MOOCs and adapt to new technology that drives MOOCs?


  1. Maybe one challenge is something like this: If people can take courses for free, without leaving their homes, then they won't see any reason to become students in a traditional residential college setting. But that worry relies on a lot of assumptions. One of them is that folks who take MOOCS would come to our colleges if they could not take MOOCs. I'm not sure that that's true. At the same time, it must be admitted that at least some of what we do in the traditional way is being sold under false pretenses. That is, our students are by and large convinced that the point of coming to college is to improve their job prospects. In some cases, and in some fields, that is certainly the case. But in many it is not. If we told prospective students that their time spent in college would not translate into good jobs, how many would come? How many of their parents would pay for them to come? THAT might be the real challenge we face--explaining the value of what we do in a way that makes its real value (which may not be very practical) clear. MOOCs may just be highlighting our own (well founded) insecurities about what we have to offer.

  2. Chris, if the MOOCs do well, eventually, their cost will seduce away students who would normally come to traditional campuses, especially is traditional campuses continue to cost so much. I teach in a CS department, so I happen to be one of the faculty who can completely sell future earning potential. However, I agree that the value is much harder to prove for many departments. I also think that parents and students both are paying money for college based on expected future returns. There are nice numbers showing that people with college degrees make a lot more than those without. They also have much lower unemployment rates. However, this doesn't control for the fact that "smart kids" go to college so there is a selection effect. It is really hard to say if those kids would have been equally capable of getting a job and making money without the college degree.

    I know there is a standard argument that education improves life in a general way. The problem is, we are specifically asking for a lot of money to do the educating. Hence, most families are only willing to do the college thing if part of what they get back is enough money to offset the up front cost. I think it is actually a very rational thought process and if it were to prove that colleges didn't increase life earnings, then college enrollments truly should crater.

    The real question I have about MOOCs is, how long until a MOOCs curriculum can provide a significant earnings increase? In CS I don't worry at all about telling parents that students doing my major will earn more. It's the truth. However, because much of the evaluation of CS is automatable I think that MOOCs have the ability to start making a dent there early. Now MOOCs can't currently help a student debug his/her code and then go through and explain how the student could have avoided putting in that bug by using proper coding techniques when it is found. They will though. It is only a matter of time.

  3. If the traditional college has (or may soon have) nothing to say in its favor, contra MOOCs, then why does it deserve to be saved? There will always be a very small number of people who want, and can afford, an education of the sort idealized by our traditional cultures. Early (as in, ancient) academies arose at a certain time to meet certain demands. As those demands have changed, so has the form of education. If "college" is played out, and can't offer what people want (or at the price they want to pay), we'll need to move on to what's next. I'm not sure it is the MOOC model, as is. But it will be something very different from what we do now, no doubt.

  4. I agree on all points. One thing I would say though is that I think traditional colleges have a lot to say in their favor. I'm not sure they have evidence to support what they say. This doesn't mean what they say isn't true, it simply means they don't have the ability to support it well with numbers. A big part of the reason is that they can't get that data without significant help. Here is a post I wrote on another blog about how colleges could get the needed data. Of course, this data might prove them wrong. There are some bills being considered that have similar aims to this, but I don't know if they do it well enough to really make it work.

  5. Richard,

    Someone just posted about that course in IHE. Might be of interest