MOOCs: The Future of Higher Education? | Top Universities

MOOCs: The Future of Higher Education?

By Staff W

Updated January 30, 2024 Updated January 30, 2024

Free online courses from world-leading universities: sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, you better start believing, because that’s exactly what MOOCs (massive open online courses) are.

Students can now get a taste of education at some of the world’s top universities without spending a penny, leaving their own home or even going through an application procedure – by taking free online courses offered by an ever-growing selection of institutions.

Unsurprisingly, MOOCs have garnered a lot of attention, and a lot of users. The first MOOC offered by edX (established by MIT and Harvard) attracted an amazing 155,000 students. The platform aims to reach no fewer than one billion users.

Coursera, currently the largest MOOC provider in terms of university partners (83 at the time of writing), also reported a sign-up rate well over 100,000 for the first courses it offered, and 3.2 million users in its first year of existence.

Pretty exciting – but why is this happening, and why now? Dr. Rahul Choudaha, director of research and advisory services at World Education Services, believes it’s a question of universities seeking greater global engagement and visibility. “For many premier universities this is an opportunity to extend the engagement of the brand with a large number of students without compromising on the selectivity of their institution.”

Choudaha also highlights the role of “faculty entrepreneurism” in driving forward the MOOC revolution. Coursera, started by a pair of Stanford computer science professors, is a prime example of this.

What is a MOOC?

A MOOC – massive open online course – is a program of learning offered by a university, open via the internet to users worldwide, free of charge. MOOCs are often based on part of an existing degree course, giving students an opportunity to ‘sample’ the experience of studying at prestigious institutions like MIT. Teaching materials may include videos, set reading, problems to solve and student forums.

However, the answer to the question ‘What is a MOOC?’ may vary depending on the university and the motivations behind the course. While MOOCs are still usually intended for students not enrolled at the university in question, there is also a move towards universities providing free online courses for their on-campus students.

In the US in particular, there’s been speculation that universities with oversubscribed courses will offer online alternatives, so students unable to fit into the classroom can still complete the necessary modules to get their degree credits.

In addition, some universities – such as Australia’s Deakin University – are now offering MOOC students the option to take an accredited examination (for a fee). This may be a stand-alone qualification, or in some cases may be accepted as equivalent to part of a full degree, encouraging MOOC students to become full enrollees.

The limitations of free online courses

Despite many exciting developments and applications, free online courses do still have many limitations – meaning MOOCs are a long way from being able to replace traditional university degrees. This is largely due to the challenges of providing support and assessment for MOOC students. A single academic may be able to develop and teach a MOOC – but s/he will simply not be able to interact with and assess the thousands of students around the world who take the course.

As Choudaha says, “MOOCs are not for all – they serve a particular segment of students who are seeking learning opportunities from premier brands at no cost and convenience of time. It is not for students seeking full-time educational credential.”

In addition to the lack of faculty support, limitations also include the lack of face-to-face interaction with other students, and lack of access to lab facilities and other resources.

However, MOOC providers are working to tackle these challenges. Coursera, for instance, uses a system where questions can be asked in a forum for other students to answer. Regularly asked questions which cannot be tackled by other students move to the top, where they can be addressed by professors. Students who perform well in a course are invited back as volunteer ‘community teaching assistants’, helping to coach others.

EdX operates a similar system, with forums monitored by teaching assistants and program managers, who look out for trending topics or specific challenges which cannot be solved by users. An experimental format where students are grouped into small sections with a teaching assistant is also being trialed.

Improvements in technology have gone some way to tackling the issue of the lack of lab space, says an edX spokesperson: “Some courses lend themselves to online, virtual labs. For example, in ‘Circuits & Electronics’, the course includes a circuit builder lab where learners can ‘build’ circuits and test their effectiveness. And in ‘Biology: The Secret of Life’, students used sophisticated protein folding software to see and play with the molecular structure of proteins.”

The future of higher education?

So, are MOOCs the future of higher education? While opinion is divided on just what role MOOCs can or should play, there is widespread agreement that they will continue to grow in importance.

For most, the true value of MOOCs lies in their capacity to open up access to knowledge that was previously the preserve of a small elite. Whether preparing for or supplementing a traditional course, or just learning for the sake of learning, MOOCs offer an incredible and unique opportunity which just five years ago would not have existed.

A spokesperson for edX outlines the MOOC provider’s lofty aims: “By making high quality education available to anyone with internet access, edX hopes to democratize education, transform lives worldwide, and reinvent campus education.”

Choudaha is optimistic that MOOC platforms will find ways to overcome many of the challenges they face. “Given the pace of change of technology, learning and quality assurance models, MOOCS will evolve and expand access, especially for 'glocal students' who want to access international learning opportunities without leaving their home country.” 

As well as opening up access, MOOCs may also have a role to play in improving universities’ delivery of course materials, and ability to track the effectiveness of different teaching methods. A spokesperson for HarvardX (Harvard’s edX branch) says, “The large number of students involved and dynamic interaction will allow us to conduct research on how learners learn and teachers teach.”

It’s early days yet, but the massive impact MOOCs have already had in a short space of time suggests we may well be witnessing something of a revolution in higher education delivery. Whether in the improvement of access worldwide, or the supplementation of programs within existing university communities, it seems MOOCs may well be a leading element in the future of higher education.

This article is adapted from the QS Top Grad School Guide 2013/14. 

This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2024

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