Though it is a comparatively new trend in the world of e-learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have fast become the subject of heated discussion. While some view this new means of learning as a way to offer education affordably to the masses, others claim that MOOCs are largely used by well educated students with means and, even among those students, are rarely completed.
The latter concerns are fair and worthy of addressing. As mentioned in my previous column, millions have already participated in a MOOC and many more are joining each day - however, the playing field is far from level and the completion rates are far from high. Journalist Geoffrey Fowler in The Wall Street Journal quoted a new study released by the University of Pennsylvania stating "college-level courses distributed free online have much more to do before they achieve their proponents' hopes of eliminating economic, geographic, racial and gender barriers to higher education." The article further added that "more than 90% of people who sign up don't finish."
Of course, the longevity of MOOCs depends not just on the success of the students taking them, but also on those offering them. The costs to produce these courses are not negligible - so how do educational providers recoup them? According to William Spaniel, a PhD Candidate at the University of Rochester who has published a series of blogs on this topic, "if MOOCs need to turn a profit, the obvious solution is to start charging for them." But he warns that "premium MOOCs face two major obstacles. First, it is not clear why anyone would want to pay money to watch online lectures. The second major obstacle is that it makes little sense for a consumer to purchase a course when they can take a similar course for free."
From my perspective, the solution is clear. Successful MOOCs need to address three fundamental challenges head-on:
• The first is to do more than offer MOOCs to as large an audience as possible - institutions need to invest in their uptake on a global scale. The only way to fully ensure the success of this global reach is by investing in local access points
• The second is to offer programmes which are distinct, offer a genuine designation and are linked to credible institutions. In this way, worldwide students of various backgrounds can come away with a degree or designation recognised by potential employers for a very low cost
• MOOCs which incur a small charge will be deemed worthy of the cost. This is the third and crucial element to an institution's long-term investment in MOOCs - and by extension, their success
You only need to ask those who teach MOOCs to start to see the true potential of paid MOOCs (often referred to as MOOC +). The Chronicle of Higher Education reported recently on what they have described as the 'largest-ever survey' conducted among MOOC professors. They found that "nearly half of the professors felt their online courses were as rigorous academically as the versions they taught in the classroom." On top of these findings, "two-thirds believe MOOCs will drive down the cost of earning a degree from their home institutions, and an overwhelming majority believe that the free online courses will make college less expensive in general."
In the UK, the Department for Business Innovation & Skills deemed this subject worthy of a paper, publishing "The Maturing of the MOOC" in September 2013. Among its many findings, including differing views on the importance, relevance and viability of MOOCs, this report definitively states that "MOOCs are heading to become a significant and possibly a standard element of credentialed University education, exploiting new pedagogical models, discovering revenue and lowering costs."
Ultimately, it is the individual educational institutions that will need to decide what the future of MOOCs hold for them. At London School of Marketing, MOOCs are something we are investing in both in the short-term and for the foreseeable future. We believe we can make our programmes accessible globally at an affordable price using our network of local access points. Our accreditations and designations are already recognised within their respective industries, which will in turn be recognised by potential employers - whether they have been obtained online or in person.
Finally, we believe that the face of education will change regardless of the pros and cons of MOOCs. We want to learn, grow and change alongside it. Such wide ranging opinions on this topic bring to mind similar debates which have arisen every time new technology threatens to change the world as we know it. Even twenty years ago, few could have predicted how significantly the internet would change everything that we do, and how we do it. It seems inevitable that MOOCs will likewise radically change education and the way the world accesses it.