Two paradoxes at the heart of MOOCs

My thinking on MOOCs has been consolidated after doing a fair bit of reading, chatting and thinking recently.  Much has been written on the disruptive potential of MOOCs and also about the problems associated with them such as lack of quality, plagiarism and lack of tutor support.   I have no desire to add to the noise and hype but want to set down two paradoxes that it seems to me are at the heart of the MOOC movement.

Paradox 1:  Most MOOCs are offered by elite institutions which don’t need to expand their student base

So why are they developing MOOCs?  Are they basically caught up in the hype and working on the proven Amazon business principle of build fast and worry about money later? Maybe, but here are some other reasons why they may be launching into MOOCs:

  1. Some providers have argued that MOOCs are aimed at helping them accumulate data on how students learn online which will then allow them to enhance their teaching for regular students.
  2. MOOCs, like open educational resources, provide a genuine opportunity to spread an institution’s educational mission outside the campus.  Call me old-fashioned but I believe that people in education are still frequently driven by altruistic motivations such as knowledge creation and a desire to spread the love of learning – as well as economics.
  3. It may help boost the profile of an individual professor and develop his or her international reputation.  When it comes to promotion will saying you’ve successfully taught thousands of students via a MOOC boost your career prospects?
  4. It may provide additional revenue though for the foreseeable future this is likely to be minimal for the institution and is dependent on developing as yet undiscovered viable business models.

Putting aside issues such as quality assurance, plagiarism and lack of tutor support, let’s suppose that MOOCs develop coherent curricula, peer support mechanisms and robust assessment processes which lead to qualifications at very low cost from credible institutions – and employers begin to take them seriously.  That leads us to the next paradox.

Paradox 2: Highly successful MOOCs attack the core business of those who are offering them

Elite institutions offering MOOCs will therefore never allow them to become as credible as their regular fee-incurring provision.  If an equivalent experience can be had for free no-one will pay fees.  MOOCs therefore will by definition remain an inferior educational experience and have to be offered under a sub-brand or a completely different brand – presumably one reason why institutions are rushing to sign up to Udacity and Coursera so they can jump on the MOOC bandwagon without diluting their own brands.  But successful partnerships where institutions club together to offer modules which build up to full qualifications are fraught with difficulties and have led to some spectacular debacles such as the UK’s £62m e-university.

High quality assessed and accredited MOOCs from Ivy League institutions will not be allowed to disrupt their own core business but may ultimately provide viable alternatives to expensive qualifications from less prestigious institutions.  This is where MOOCs could begin to disrupt the higher education market.  Learners are becoming ever more discerning and there is further evidence that the higher education bubble in the US has burst particularly in the for-profit sector with recent announcements such as the University of Phoenix closing half of its campuses.  MOOC-based qualifications will have to be very good and much cheaper to gain ground in an increasingly competitive market.

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4 Responses to Two paradoxes at the heart of MOOCs

  1. says:

    Important to consider these arguments, but I don’t think the paradoxes are real, because I’d argue with most of these points:
    Elite institutions can afford MOOCs for PR purposes (or even pro bono work), at which they are very successful.
    MOOC students are not like regular students, and the learning analytics on your regular VLE will give you better information about enhancing their learning.
    You cannot know that you have ‘taught’ ‘successfully’ on a MOOC because without individual assessment you can’t know. And automated assessment isn’t yet good enough.
    Viable business models are not undiscoverable – just that no-one bothers to do them, viz UKeU, which had a ludicrous fantasy business model.
    MOOCs will not attack any university until they can undermine the intellectual support and accreditation of the quality of achievement of each individual student (i.e. reliable formative and summative assessment).
    MOOCs are a great idea, but in old technology terms they are essentially education as public library + coffee bar. Public libraries were a wonderful invention, and the first coffee houses were called ‘the penny universities’ – but the combination is not close to a university education. And when it does get close, they charge.

  2. Pingback: The emergence of MOOCs – Part 1 | Learner Weblog

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  4. Niall, this question is not directly related to your posting but is one that I thought you might be the best person to answer. I remember being at an ALT conference (about 2005?) when the UK e-university was announced and asking why they were building a new learning environment when there were quite good ones, including open source that could be modified, already available. While I don’t know if this was a major cause of its failure, it certainly burned through a lot of cash. So now I have the same question about the new Futurelearn initiative. Why not modify Moodle or Sakai or Canvas, or even just join edX? My first reaction is to trust the experts and conclude that they know something I don’t, but recent experiences in Ireland in banking and construction have dented my confidence in experts. Is there something I’m missing here?

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