The Reports of the Death of the MOOC are Highly Exaggerated

28 Nov

MOOCs are still in their infancy, their technical feasibility has been tested but little else. We now know that they work, that there is a large section of the population that is interested. How much of this is a market? We are not sure yet (yes, there are forecasts). And so we arrive at the stage, as with every innovation, where we try to understand revenue models. There are some revenue models for some MOOCs being tested now. Corporate MOOCs of course have a revenue model built in, and there are other pathways to success too.

Like any good innovation, MOOCs are clearly a disruptor. They have shaken up the market for higher education, showed up the gaps and created opportunities not only for lifelong learning but for broader learning. Not only can people breach the linearity of time and geography, they can also move horizontally across learning areas that were traditionally in inaccessible silos. As with any disruptive innovation, the establishment gets upset at the beginning as there is a clear and present danger of their way of life becoming redundant.

Universities have been asking this question since the MOOCs became a phenomenon – Is there a future for traditional universities? Will they have to change how they do things? The early consensus was that the best universities would survive but the rest across the globe could be disintermediated as these MOOCs provided better quality teaching anyway.Debatable. Debated.

Some professors who ran excellent MOOCs were gaining a large followership of a scale never seen before. The era of the celebrity professor seemed nigh. (Some even spoke of a caste system in teaching, with different classes of teachers emerging as ratings systems emerged – this may yet happen) But one could not deny the value of extending teaching from elite institutions to students across the world. Of course the better universities had made their lectures available online long before these MOOC platforms, but that did not engage students as these courses did – assignments, peer learning – the age of social learning was here.

Then the criticisms started. Some spoke of a ‘colonial’ approach to learning – where the MOOCs were designed and delivered by a benign first world to the lagging third world. An act of knowledge charity, one that was not necessarily what the third world needed. (The fact that they signed up in droves, showing that they liked and wanted these courses did not seem to affect those worrying about colonised education). Cracks started showing as some high profile MOOCs were cancelled. Some tried fees and certification and the jury is still out on those models. Some more will be tried, surely, for MOOCs need to both earn revenues and provide certification to bring value both to its market and to its creators.

And then came in the data – apparently these MOOCs were not as charitable .. oops equitable as it was previously thought. Those who accessed, completed the courses and benefited from it were largely graduates – apparently the same 7% who always win, were winning again. I wonder why this is either surprising or a revelation – MOOCs require self driven learning, one has to be dedicated and motivated to succeed. These are skills for success that are developed in schools. While some school drop outs have the committment to succeed via specific courses, these skills and other study skills are ones that they have not mastered. One of my first, and still my main grouse with MOOCs is that there is little pastoral care built into the model. Learning is not just a social process, it requires positive strokes. It does not only depend upon a good peer group, the need for validation and approval is essential for course correction when we stray, as we will inevitably.

All this may be set to change, and the next phase of the MOOC journey is almost here. No longer driven by supply side impulses, MOOCs are growing up. Much like a teenager who suddenly realises that rent and bread need money to be earned, MOOCs are just coming of age. Corporate MOOCs are already proving to be a valid model, though there are doubts on whether the appellation “Massive” and “Open” can still apply in this context. This will be an interesting journey to watch, but my guess is that some MOOC models will appear that will still fit the original ask – and will be part of the corporate learner’s bag. The pathways through the modules, the reward systems and the breadth of the learning that still fits the corporate goals will be a quick evolution. This is the easy part of the forecast.

The other cross current that will change the face of MOOCs is Big Data. MOOCs will deliver true value when the data begins to track progress, correlate it to the teaching and e-learning process and start answering some of the basic questions about how we really learn. A fundamental understanding of learning, an adaptive learning system, a responsive learning tool – this is what the future success of MOOCs will look like. Will it be an intrusive process? In a way yes, because every aspect of the online learning process will be tracked and analysed.

There will be storms ahead, including ones on privacy, on the fact that offline learning complements online learning and is not being included in the studies, and even on the fact that every bit of experiential learning and talent cannot be mapped precisely in a big data driven analysis. The MOOCs will have to weather all these storms to survive – naturally, they will evolve.

MOOCs are just beginning their journey. They have merely passed the first milestone and established their viability. There are many avatars that they will take – there will be MOOCs for conflict education, there will be MOOCs designed to support the successor to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), there will be others designed to meet the much maligned skills gaps between education and employment. Much of the MOOC model still needs to be created – such as the governance model. The supply chains of MOOCs too will need to be crafted for efficiency and not just for service delivery. Much will change, but what will remain the same is the fact that finally the learner is at the centre of the process. And this is why the MOOC will not die – it has become the doorway to better access to the learner and the learning process.

* With apologies to Mark Twain for the title, but as with much else, he seems to have said it before anyone else.

Meeta Sengupta
27 November 2013, 11:17 PM IST


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