Lesson 11 - Massive Open Online Courses

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Course: Teaching in a Digital Age
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Date: Sunday, 14 July 2024, 5:47 AM

1. Watch this Video on Massive Open Online Courses

2. Brief History

Figure 1

Daphne Koller’s TED Talk, 2012

For a response to this video, see: ‘What’s right and what’s wrong with Coursera-style MOOCs’.

The term MOOC was used for the first time in 2008 for a course offered by the Extension Division of the University of Manitoba in Canada. This non-credit course, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CK08) was designed by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier. It enrolled 27 on-campus students who paid a tuition fee but was also offered online for free. Much to the surprise of the instructors, 2,200 students enrolled in the free online version. Downes classified this course and others like it that followed as connectivist or cMOOCs, because of their design (Downes, 2012).

In the fall of 2011, two computer science professors from Stanford University, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, launched a MOOC on The Introduction to AI (artificial intelligence) that attracted over 160,000 enrolments, followed quickly by two other MOOCs, also in computer sciences, from Stanford instructors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. Thrun went on to found Udacity, and Ng and Koller established Coursera. These are for-profit companies using their own specially developed software that enable massive numbers of registrations and a platform for the teaching. Udacity and Coursera formed partnerships with other leading universities where the universities pay a fee to offer their own MOOCs through these platforms. Udacity in 2013 changed direction to focus on the vocational and corporate training market.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in March 2012 developed an open-source platform for MOOCs called edX, which also acts as a platform for online registration and teaching. edX has also developed partnerships with leading universities to offer MOOCs without direct charge for hosting their courses, although some may pay to become partners in edX. Other platforms for MOOCs, such as the U.K. Open University’s FutureLearn, have also been developed. Because the majority of MOOCs offered through these various platforms are based mainly on video lectures and computer-marked tests, Downes has classified these as xMOOCs, to distinguish them from the more connectivist cMOOCs.

In March 2019 there were more than 11,000 MOOC courses from 900 universities globally, with just over 100 million registrations (Shah and Pickard, 2019). The big change in 2017-2018 was a move to MOOC-based degrees, with seven universities announcing 15 degrees in 2017, and in 2018, 30 more universities joined in, and launched more than 45 degrees (Johnson, 2019).

In addition to full degrees, EdX and Coursera both offer multiple micro-credentials, each with their own branding. Overall, 630 micro-credentials existed at the end of 2018, but most of the new credentials came from just two credentials, Coursera specialization, and edX professional certificate (Johnson, 2019).

3. What is a MOOC?

Figure 2: Making sense of MOOCs © Giulia Forsythe, 2012 and JISC, 2012

3.1. MOOCS: A Massive Disruption?

Probably no development in teaching in recent years has been as controversial as the development of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In 2013, the writer Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times:

...nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course ….For relatively little money, the U.S. could rent space in an Egyptian village, install two dozen computers and high-speed satellite Internet access, hire a local teacher as a facilitator, and invite in any Egyptian who wanted to take online courses with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Arabic…I can see a day soon where you’ll create your own college degree by taking the best online courses from the best professors from around the world ….paying only the nominal fee for the certificates of completion. It will change teaching, learning, and the pathway to employment.

Many others have referred to MOOCs as a prime example of the kind of disruptive technology that Clayton Christensen (2010) has argued will change the world of education. Others have argued that MOOCs are not a big deal, just a more modern version of educational broadcasting, and do not really affect the basic fundamentals of education, and in particular do not address the type of learning needed in a digital age.

MOOCs can be seen then as either a major revolution in education or just another example of the overblown hyperbole often surrounding technology, particularly in the USA. I shall be arguing that MOOCs are a significant development, but they have severe limitations for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age.

3.2. Key Characteristics

All MOOCs have some common features, although we shall see that the term MOOC covers an increasingly wide range of designs.


By 2019, Coursera claimed over 35 million sign-ups with its largest course claiming 240,000 participants. The huge numbers (in the hundreds of thousands) enrolling in the earliest MOOCs are not always replicated in later MOOCs, but the numbers are still substantial. For instance, in 2013, the University of British Columbia offered several MOOCs through Coursera, with the numbers initially signing up ranging from 25,000 to 190,000 per course (Engle, 2014).

However, even more, important than the actual numbers are that in principle MOOCs have infinite scalability. There is technically no limit to their final size, because the marginal cost of adding each extra participant is nil for the institutions offering MOOCs. (In practice this is not quite true, as central technology, backup, and bandwidth costs increase, and as we shall see, there can be some knock-on costs for an institution offering MOOCs as numbers increase. However, the cost of each additional participant is so small, given the very large numbers, that it can be more or less ignored). The scalability of MOOCs is probably the characteristic that has attracted the most attention, especially from governments, but it should be noted that this is also a characteristic of broadcast television and radio, so it is not unique to MOOCs.


At least for the initial MOOCs, access was free for participants, although an increasing number of MOOCs are charging a fee for assessment leading to a badge or certificate or other fees. For instance, in 2019 Coursera was charging between US$29-$99 per course.

There are no pre-requisites for participants other than access to a computer/mobile device and the Internet. However, broadband access is essential for MOOCs that use video streaming, which severely limits their potential for widening access to higher education in the least developed countries.

There is another significant way in which MOOCs through Coursera and some other MOOC platforms are not fully open (see Lesson 10 for more on what constitutes ‘open’ in education). Coursera owns the rights to the materials, so they cannot be repurposed or reused without permission, and the material may be removed from the Coursera site when the course ends. Also, Coursera decides which institutions can host MOOCs on its platform – this is not an open access for institutions. On the other hand, edX is an open source platform, so any institution that joins edX can develop their own MOOCs with their own rules regarding rights to the material. cMOOCs are generally completely open, but since individual participants of cMOOCs create a lot if not all of the material it is not always clear whether they own the rights and how long the MOOC materials will remain available.

Indeed, there are many other kinds of online material that are also open and free over the Internet, such as open textbooks and open educational resources, often in ways that are more accessible for reuse than MOOC material (see Lesson 10).


MOOCs are offered at least initially wholly online, but increasingly institutions are negotiating with the rights holders to use MOOC materials in a blended format for use on campus. In other words, the institution provides learner support for the MOOC materials through the use of campus-based instructors. For instance at San Jose State University, on-campus students used MOOC materials from Udacity courses, including lectures, readings and quizzes, and then instructors spent classroom time on small-group activities, projects and quizzes to check progress (Collins, 2013). More variations in the design of MOOCs will be discussed in more detail in Section 5.3.

Again, though it should be noted that MOOCs are not unique in offering courses online. In 2017, there were 6.3 million students in the USA alone taking online courses for credit, as part of regular degree programs (Seaman et. al, 2018).


One characteristic that distinguishes MOOCs from most other open educational resources are that they are organized into a whole course. However, what this actually means for participants is not exactly clear. Although many MOOCs offer certificates or badges for successful completion of a course, to date these have not in most cases been accepted for admission to universities or for advanced standing or credit, even (or especially) by the institutions offering the MOOCs.

It can be seen that all the key characteristics of MOOCs exist in some form or other outside MOOCs. What makes MOOCs unique though is the combination of the four key characteristics and in particular the fact that they scale massively and are open for participants (although not always free).

4. A Taxonomy of MOOCs

Figure 3: There are many variations of the basic MOOC design Image: © Dairy Cattle, India, 2014© Dairy Cattle, India, 2014

4.1. xMOOCs

MOOCs developed initially by Stanford University professors and a little later by MIT and Harvard instructors are based primarily on a strongly behaviorist, information transmission model, the core teaching being through online recorded videos of short lectures, combined with computer automated testing, and sometimes also through the use of peer assessment. These MOOCs are offered through special cloud-based software platforms such as Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn.

xMOOCs is a term coined by Stephen Downes (2012) for courses developed by Coursera, Udacity, and edX. At the time of writing (2019) xMOOCs are by far the most common MOOC. Instructors have considerable flexibility in the design of the course, so there is considerable variation in the details, but in general xMOOCs have the following common design features:

Specially Designed Platform Software

Most very large xMOOCs use specially designed platform software such as Coursera, edX or FutureLearn that allows for the registration of very large numbers of participants, provides facilities for the storing and streaming on-demand of digital materials, and automates assessment procedures and student performance tracking. The software platform also allows the companies that provide the software to collect and analyze student data.

However, more and more smaller institutions are offering their own xMOOCs through using or adapting their continuing education online registration process, their own video servers, and ‘off-the-shelf’ automated feedback, testing and marking tools.

Video Lectures

xMOOCs use the standard lecture mode, delivered online by participants downloading on-demand recorded video lectures. These video lectures are normally available on a weekly basis over a period of 10-13 weeks. Initially, these were often 50-minute lectures, but as a result of experience, some xMOOCs now are using shorter recordings (sometimes down to 15 minutes in length) and thus there may be more video segments. As well, xMOOC courses are becoming shorter in length, some now lasting only five weeks. Various video production methods have been used, including lecture capture (recording face-to-face on-campus lectures, then storing them and streaming them on demand), full studio production, or desk-top recording by the instructor.

Computer-marked Assignments

Students complete an online test and receive immediate computerized feedback. These tests are usually offered throughout the course and may be used just for participant feedback. Alternatively, the tests may be used for determining the award of a certificate. Another option is for an end of the course grade or certificate-based solely on an end-of-course online test. Most xMOOC assignments are based on multiple-choice, computer-marked questions, but some MOOCs have also used text or formula boxes for participants to enter answers, such as coding in a computer science course, or mathematical formulae, and in one or two cases, short text answers, but in most cases, these will be computer-marked.

Peer Assessment

Some xMOOCs have experimented with assigning students randomly to small groups for peer assessment, especially for more open-ended or more evaluative assignment questions. This has often proved problematic though because of wide variations in expertise between the different members of a group, and because of the different levels of involvement in the course of different participants.

Supporting Materials

Sometimes copies of slides, supplementary audio files, URLs to other resources and online articles may be included for downloading by participants.

A Shared Comment/Discussion Space

These are places where participants can post questions, ask for help, or comment on the content of the course.

No, or Very Light, Discussion Moderation

The extent to which the discussion or comments are moderated varies probably more than any other feature in xMOOCs but at its most, moderation is directed at all participants rather than to individuals. Because of the very large numbers participating and commenting, moderation of individual comments by the instructor(s) offering the MOOC is rarely possible. Some instructors offer no moderation whatsoever, so participants rely on other participants to respond to questions or comments. Some instructors ‘sample’ comments and questions, and post comments in response to these. Some instructors use volunteers or paid teaching assistants to comb comments to identify common areas of concern shared by a number of participants then the instructor and/or the teaching assistants will respond. However, in most cases, participants moderate each other’s comments or questions.

Badges or Certificates

Most xMOOCs award some kind of recognition for successful completion of a course, based on a final computer-marked assessment. However, at the time of writing, MOOC badges or certificates have in most cases not been recognized for credit or admission purposes even by the institutions offering a MOOC – even when the lectures are the same as for on-campus students. Little evidence exists to date about employer acceptance of MOOC qualifications (see for instance, Banks and Meinart, 2016 or Gatuguta-Gitau, 2017). However, with the increasing development of partnerships between major employers and MOOC providers to develop microcredentials, this may change (see for example, Gordon, 2018).

Learning Analytics

Although to date there has not been a great deal of published information about the use of learning analytics in xMOOCs, the xMOOC platforms have the capacity to collect and analyze ‘big data’ about participants and their performance, enabling, at least in theory, for immediate feedback to instructors about areas where the content or design needs improving and possibly directing automated cues or hints for individuals. For examples of the use of learning analytics in MOOCs, see Laveti et al., 2017 or Eradze and Tammets, 2017.

xMOOCs Summary

xMOOCs therefore primarily use a teaching model focused on the transmission of information, with high-quality content delivery, computer-marked assessment (mainly for student feedback purposes), and automation of all key transactions between participants and the learning platform. There is rarely any direct interaction between an individual participant and the instructor responsible for the course, although instructors may post general comments in response to a range of participants’ comments. Thus, there is a highly behaviouristic/objectivist epistemology underlying xMOOCs.

4.2. cMOOCs

cMOOCs, the first of which was developed by three instructors for a course at the University of Manitoba in 2008, are based on network learning, where learning develops through the connections and discussions between participants over social media. There is no standard technology platform for cMOOCs, which use a combination of webcasts, participant blogs, tweets, software that connects blogs and tweets on the same topic via hashtags, and online discussion forums. Although usually there are some experts who initiate and participate in cMOOCs, they are by and large driven by the interests and contributions of the participants. Usually there is no attempt at formal assessment.

Key Design Principles for cMOOCs

Downes (2014) has identified four key design principles for cMOOCs:

  • Autonomy of the learner: Although whoever organizes the MOOC will usually choose a main topic and invite participants, there is no formal curriculum; participants decide what to discuss, what to read, and what they wish to contribute towards the topic.
  • Diversity: In the tools used, the range of participants, their knowledge levels, and the varied content.
  • Interactivity: In terms of co-operative learning, communication between participants, resulting in ’emergent’ knowledge.
  • Open-ness: In terms of access, content, activities and assessment.

Thus, for the proponents of cMOOCs, learning results not from the transmission of information from an expert to novices, as in xMOOCs, but from the sharing and flow of knowledge between participants.

From Principles to Practice

Identifying how these key design features for cMOOCs are turned into practice is somewhat more difficult to pinpoint because cMOOCs depend on an evolving set of practices. Most cMOOCs to date have in fact made some use of ‘experts’, both in the organization and promotion of the MOOC, and in providing ‘nodes’ of content around which discussion tends to revolve.  In other words, the design practices of cMOOCs are still more a work in progress than those of xMOOCs.

Nevertheless, at the moment the following are key design practices in cMOOCs:

  • Use of Social Media: Partly because most cMOOCs are not institutionally based or supported, they do not at present use a shared platform or platforms but are more loosely supported by a range of openly accessible ‘connected’ tools and media. These may include a simple online registration system, and the use of web conferencing tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Adobe Connect, streamed video or audio files, blogs, wikis, ‘open’ learning management systems such as Moodle or Canvas, Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, all enabling participants to share their contributions. Indeed, as new apps and social media tools develop, they too are likely to be incorporated into cMOOCs. All these tools are connected through web-based hashtags or other web-based linking mechanisms, enabling participants to identify social media contributions from other participants. Thus, the use of loosely linked or connected social media is a key design component of cMOOCs.
  • Participant-driven Content: In principle, other than a common topic that may be decided by someone wanting to organize a cMOOC, content is decided upon and contributed by the participants themselves. Indeed, there may be no formally identified instructor. In practice though cMOOC organizers (who themselves tend to have some expertise in the topic of the MOOC) are likely to invite potential participants who have expertise or are known already to have a well-articulated approach to a topic, to make contributions which form the basis of discussion and debate. Participants choose their own ways to contribute or communicate, the most common being through blog posts, tweets, or comments on other participants’ blog posts, although some cMOOCs use wikis or open-source online discussion forums. The key design practice with regard to content is that all participants contribute to and share content.
  • Distributed Communication: This is probably the most difficult design practice to understand for those not familiar with cMOOCs – and even for those who have participated. With participants numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, each contributing individually through a variety of social media, there are a myriad different inter-connection between participants that are impossible to track (in total) by any single participant. This results in many sub-conversations, more commonly at a binary level of two people communicating with each other than an integrated group discussion, although all conversations are ‘open’ and all other participants are able to contribute to a conversation if they know it exists. The key design practice then with regard to communication is a self-organizing network with many sub-components.
  • Assessment: There is no formal assessment, although participants may seek feedback from other, more knowledgeable participants, on an informal basis. Basically, participants decide for themselves whether what they have learned is appropriate to them.

cMOOCs Summary

cMOOCs therefore primarily use a networked approach to learning based on autonomous learners connecting with each other across open and connected social media and sharing knowledge through their own personal contributions. There is no pre-set curriculum and no formal teacher-student relationship, either for delivery of content or for learner support. Participants learn from the contributions of others, from the meta-level knowledge generated through the community, and from self-reflection on their own contributions, thus reflecting many of the features of communities of interest or practice.

cMOOCs have a very different educational philosophy from xMOOCs. Downes and Siemens have argued that cMOOCs reflect a new theory of learning, ‘connectivism’, based on exploiting online social networks. cMOOCs certainly reflect a constructivist epistemology.

4.3. What’s Going on Here?

It is not surprising that over time, the design of MOOCs is evolving. There seem to be three distinct kinds of development:

  • Some of the newer MOOCs, especially those from institutions with a history of credit-based online learning prior to the introduction of MOOCs, are beginning to apply some of the best practices, such as organised and moderated discussion groups, from online credit courses to MOOCs.
  • Others are trying to open up their regular campus classes also, simultaneously, to non-registered students (which in fact is how the first MOOC, from Cormier, Downes and Siemens originated).
  • Yet others are trying to blend online MOOC materials or content with their on-campus teaching.

It is likely that innovation in MOOC design and the way MOOCs are used will continue. In particular, different kinds of MOOC come and go.

However, some of these developments also indicate a good deal of confusion around the definition and goals of MOOCs, especially regarding massiveness and open-ness. If participants from outside a university have to pay a hefty fee to participate in an otherwise ‘closed’, on-campus course, or if off-campus participants have to be selected on certain criteria before they can participate, is it really open? Is the term MOOC now being used to describe any unconventional online offering or any online continuing education course? It’s difficult to see how a SPOC for instance differs from a typical online continuing education course, except perhaps in that it uses a recorded lecture rather than a learning management system. There is a danger of having any online course ending up being described as a MOOC, when in fact there are major differences in design and philosophy.

Although each of these individual innovations, often the result of the initiative of an individual instructor, are to be welcomed in principle, the consequences need to be carefully considered in fairness to potential participants. Individual instructors designing MOOCs really need to make sure that the design is consistent in terms of educational philosophy and be clear as to why they are opting for a MOOC rather than a conventional online course. This is particularly important if there is to be any form of formal assessment. The status of such an assessment for participants who are not formally admitted to or registered as a student in an institution needs to be clear and consistent.

There is even more confusion about mixing MOOCs with on-campus teaching. At the moment the strategy appears to be to first develop a MOOC then see how it can be adapted for on-campus teaching. However, a better strategy might be to develop a conventional, for-credit online course, in terms of design, then see how it could be scaled for open access to other participants. Another strategy might be to use open social media, such as a course wiki and student blogs, to widen access to the teaching of a formal course, rather than develop a full-blown MOOC.

Thinking through the policy implications of incorporating MOOCs or MOOC materials with on-campus teaching does not appear to be happening at the moment in most institutions experimenting with ‘blended’ MOOCs. If MOOC participants are taking exactly the same course and assessment as registered on-campus for-credit students, will the institution award the external MOOC participants who successfully complete the assessment credit for it and/or admit them to the institution? If not, why not? For an excellent discussion of these issues framed for an institution’s Board of Governors, see Green, 2013.

Thus, some of these MOOC developments seem to be operating in a policy vacuum regarding open learning in general. At some point, institutions will need to develop a clearer, more consistent strategy for open learning, in terms of how it can best be provided, how it calibrates with formal learning, and how open learning can be accommodated within the fiscal constraints of the institution, and then where MOOCs, other OERs, and conventional for-credit online courses might fit with the strategy. For more on this topic, see Lesson 10.

4.4. Other Variations of MOOCs

I have deliberately focused on the differences in design between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, and Mackness (2103) and Yousef et al. (2014) also emphasise similar differences in philosophy/theory between cMOOCs and xMOOCs, as well as Downes himself (2012), one of the original designers of cMOOCs.

However, it should be noted that the design of MOOCs continues to evolve, with all kinds of variations. Pilli and Admiraal (2016) have identified 27 types of MOOC, including:

  • cMOOCs
  • xMOOCs
  • BOOCs (A Big Open Online Courses): A cross between an xMOOC and a Cmooc
  • COOCs (Community Open Online Courses): Small-scale, non-profit courses that corporations open online to provide courses for customers and/or employees
  • DOCCs (Distributed Open Collaborative Courses): This involves 17 universities sharing and adapting the same basic MOOC
  • LOOCs (Little Open Online Courses): As well as 15-20 tuition-paying campus-based students, such courses also allow a limited number of non-registered students to also take the course, but also paying a fee
  • MOORs (Massive Open Online Research): A mix of video-based lecturers and student research projects guided by the instructors
  • SPOCs (Small, Private, Online Courses): The example given is from Harvard Law School, which pre-selected 500 students from over 4,000 applicants, who take the same video-delivered lectures as on-campus students enrolled at Harvard

The MOOCs developed by the University of British Columbia and a number of other institutions use volunteers, paid academic assistants or even the instructor to moderate the online discussions and participant comments, making such MOOCs closer in design to regular for-credit online courses – except that they are open to anyone.

5. Strengths and Weaknesses of MOOCs

Figure 4: MOOC users tend to be male, well-educated, with about 40-60% from other countries. Image: Depositphotos, 2019

In-depth analysis by standard academic criteria shows that MOOCs have more academic rigor and are a far more effective teaching methodology than in-house teaching.

Benton R. Groves, Ph.D. student


My big concern with xMOOCs is their limitation, as currently designed, for developing the higher order intellectual skills needed in a digital world.

Tony Bates

5.1. The Research on MOOCs

At the time of writing (2019), MOOCs are still less than ten years old, whereas online courses for credit have been around for more than 20 years. The latter have been subject to much more independent research, although this prior research was largely ignored in the design of the early MOOCs. A lot of the research to date on MOOCs comes from the institutions offering MOOCs, mainly in the form of reports on enrolments, or self-evaluation by instructors. The commercial platform providers such as Coursera and Udacity have provided limited research information overall, which is a pity, because they have access to really big data sets. However, MIT and Harvard, the founding partners in edX, are conducting some research, mainly on their own courses.

In this lesson, I have drawn on available evidence-based research that provides insight into the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. At the same time, we should be clear that we are discussing a phenomenon that to date has been marked largely by political, emotional and often irrational discourse, rather than something based on evidence-based research.

Lastly, it should be remembered in this evaluation I am applying the criteria of whether MOOCs are likely to lead to the kinds of learning needed in a digital age: in other words, do they help develop the knowledge and skills defined in Lesson 8.

5.2. Open and Free Education

The 'Open-ness' of MOOCs

MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high-quality content from some of the world’s best universities to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection. This in itself is an amazing value proposition. In this sense, MOOCs are an incredibly valuable addition to education. Who could argue against this?

However, MOOCs are not the only form of open and free education. Libraries, open textbooks and educational broadcasting are also open and free and have been for some time. There are also lessons we can learn from these earlier forms of open and free education that also apply to MOOCs.

Furthermore, MOOCs are not always open as in the sense of open educational resources. Coursera and Udacity for instance offer limited access to their material for re-use without permission. On other more open platforms, such as edX, individual faculty or institutions may restrict re-use of material. Lastly, many MOOCs exist for only one or two years then disappear, which limits their use as open educational resources for re-use in other courses or programs.

A Replacement for Conventional Education?

It is worth noting that these earlier forms of open and free education did not replace the need for formal, credit-based education, but were used to supplement or strengthen it. In other words, MOOCs are a tool for continuing and informal education, which has high value in its own right. As we shall see, though, MOOCs work best when people are already reasonably well educated. There is no reason to believe then that because MOOCs are open and free to end-users, they will inevitably force down the cost of conventional higher education or eliminate the need for it altogether.

The Answer for Education in Developing Countries?

There have been many attempts to use educational broadcasting and satellite broadcasting in developing countries to open up education for the masses (see Bates, 1984), and they all substantially failed to increase access or reduce cost for a variety of reasons, the most important being:

  • The high cost of ground equipment (including security from theft or damage)
  • The need for local face-to-face support for learners without high levels of education
  • The need to adapt content to the culture and needs of the receiving countries
  • The difficulty of covering the operational costs of management and administration, especially for assessment, qualifications and local accreditation

Also, the priority in most developing countries is not for university courses from high-level Stanford University professors, but for low cost, good quality high school education.

Although mobile phones and to lesser extent tablets are widespread in Africa, they are relatively expensive to use. For instance, it costs US$2 to download a typical YouTube video – equivalent to a day’s salary for many Africans. Streamed 50-minute video lectures then have limited applicability. 

Lastly, it is frankly immoral to allow people in developing countries to believe that successful completion of MOOCs will lead to a recognized degree or to university entrance in the USA or in any other economically advanced country, at least under present circumstances.

This is not to say that MOOCs could not be valuable in developing countries, but this will mean:

  • Being realistic as to what they can actually deliver
  • Working in partnership with educational institutions and systems and other partners in developing countries
  • Ensuring that the necessary local support – which costs real money – is put in place
  • Adapting the design, content, and delivery of MOOCs to the cultural and economic requirements of those countries

Finally, although MOOCs are in the main free for participants, they are not without substantial cost to MOOC providers.

5.3. The Audience that MOOCs Mainly Serve

In a research report from Ho et al. (2014), researchers at Harvard University and MIT found that on the first 17 MOOCs offered through edX.

  • 66 Percent of all participants, and 74 percent of all who obtained a certificate, have a bachelor’s degree or above
  • 71 Percent were male, and the average age was 26
  • This and other studies also found that a high proportion of participants came from outside the USA, ranging from 40-60 percent of all participants, indicating strong interest internationally in open access to high quality university teaching

In a study based on over 80 interviews in 62 institutions ‘active in the MOOC space’, Hollands and Tirthali (2014), researchers at Columbia University Teachers’ College, found that:

Data from MOOC platforms indicate that MOOCs are providing educational opportunities to millions of individuals across the world. However, most MOOC participants are already well-educated and employed, and only a small fraction of them fully engages with the courses. Overall, the evidence suggests that MOOCs are currently falling far short of “democratizing” education and may, for now, be doing more to increase gaps in access to education than to diminish them.

Thus MOOCs, as is common with most forms of university continuing education, cater to the better educated, older and employed sectors of society.

5.4. Persistence and Commitment: The Onion Hypothesis

The edX researchers (Ho et al., 2014) identified different levels of commitment as follows across 17 edX MOOCs:

  • Only registered: Registrants who never access the courseware (35 percent)
  • Only viewed: Non-certified registrants who access the courseware, accessing less than half of the available chapters (56 percent)
  • Only explored: Non-certified registrants who access more than half of the available chapters in the courseware, but did not get a certificate (4 percent)
  • Certified: Registrants who earn a certificate in the course (5 percent)

Hill (2013) has identified five types of participants in Coursera courses:

Figure 6: Image: Phil Hill, 2013

Engle (2014) found similar patterns (also replicated in other studies) for the University of British Columbia MOOCs on Coursera:

  • Of those that initially sign up, between one third and a half do not participate in any other active way.
  • Of those that participate in at least one activity, between 5-10 percent go on to successfully complete a certificate.

Those going on to achieve certificates usually are within the 5-10 percent range of those that sign up and in the 10-20 percent range for those who actively engaged with the MOOC at least once. Nevertheless, the numbers obtaining certificates are still large in absolute terms: over 43,000 across 17 courses on edX and 8,000 across four courses at UBC (between 2,000-2,500 certificates per course).

Milligan et al. (2013) found a similar pattern of commitment in cMOOCs, from interviewing a small sample of participants (29 out of 2,300 registrants) about halfway through a cMOOC:

  • Passive participants: In Milligan’s study these were those that felt lost in the MOOC and rarely but occasionally logged in.
  • Lurkers: They were actively following the course but did not engage in any of the activities (just under half those interviewed).
  • Active participants (again, just under half those interviewed) who were fully engaged in the course activities.

MOOCs need to be judged for what they are, a somewhat unique – and valuable – form of non-formal education. These results are very similar to research into non-formal educational broadcasts (e.g. the History Channel). One would not expect a viewer to watch every episode of a History Channel series then take an exam at the end. Ho et al. (p.13) produced the following diagram to show the different levels of commitment to xMOOCs:

Figure 7: Level of participation in MOOCs © Ho et al., 2014

This is remarkably similar to what I wrote in 1984 about the onion hypothesis of educational broadcasting in Britain (Bates, 1984):

(p.99): At the center of the onion is a small core of fully committed students who work through the whole course, and, where available, take an end-of-course assessment or examination. Around the small core will be a rather larger layer of students who do not take any examination but do enroll with a local class or correspondence school. There may be an even larger layer of students who, as well as watching and listening, also buy the accompanying textbook, but who do not enroll in any courses. Then, by far the largest group, are those that just watch or listen to the programmes. Even within this last group, there will be considerable variations, from those who watch or listen fairly regularly, to those, again a much larger number, who watch or listen to just one programme. 

I also wrote (p.100):

A sceptic may say that the only ones who can be said to have learned effectively are the tiny minority that worked right through the course and successfully took the final assessment…A counter-argument would be that broadcasting can be considered successful if it merely attracts viewers or listeners who might otherwise have shown no interest in the topic; it is the numbers exposed to the material that matter…the key issue then is whether broadcasting does attract to education those who would not otherwise have been interested, or merely provides yet another opportunity for those who are already well educated…There is a good deal of evidence that it is still the better educated in Britain and Europe that make the most use of non-formal educational broadcasting.

Exactly the same could be said about MOOCs. In a digital age where easy and open access to new knowledge is critical for those working in knowledge-based industries, MOOCs will be one valuable source or means of accessing that knowledge. The issue is though whether there are more effective ways to do this. Thus, MOOCs can be considered useful – but not really revolutionary -contribution to non-formal continuing education.

5.5. Assessment

Assessment of the massive numbers of participants in MOOCs has proved to be a major challenge. It is a complex topic that can be dealt with only briefly here. This section draws heavily on Suen’s paper.

Computer Marked Assessments

Assessment to date in MOOCs has been primarily of two kinds. The first is based on quantitative multiple-choice tests or response boxes where formulae or ‘correct code’ can be entered and automatically checked. Usually, participants are given immediate automated feedback on their answers, ranging from the simple right or wrong answers to more complex responses depending on the type of response checked, but in all cases, the process is usually fully automated.

For straight testing of facts, principles, formulae, equations and other forms of conceptual learning where there are clear, correct answers, this works well. In fact, multiple-choice computer marked assignments were used by the UK Open University as long ago as the 1970s, although the means to give immediate online feedback were not available then. However, this method of assessment is limited for testing deep or ‘transformative’ learning, and particularly weak for assessing the intellectual skills needed in a digital age, such as creative or original thinking.

Peer Assessment 

Another type of assessment that has been tried in MOOCs has been peer assessment, where participants assess each other’s work. Peer assessment is not new. It has been successfully used for formative assessment in traditional classrooms and in some online teaching for credit (Falchikov and Goldfinch, 2000; van Zundert et al., 2010). More importantly, peer assessment is seen as a powerful way to improve deep understanding and knowledge through the process of students evaluating the work of others, and at the same time, it can be useful for developing some of the skills needed in a digital age, such as critical thinking, for those participants assessing other participants.

However, a key feature of the successful use of peer assessment has been the close involvement of an instructor or teacher, in providing benchmarks, rubrics or criteria for assessment, and for monitoring and adjusting peer assessments to ensure consistency and a match with the benchmarks set by the instructor. Although an instructor can provide the benchmarks and rubrics in MOOCs, close monitoring of the multiple peer assessments is difficult if not impossible with the very large numbers of participants. As a result, MOOC participants often become incensed at being randomly assessed by other participants who may not and often do not have the knowledge or ability to give a ‘fair’ or accurate assessment of another participant’s work.

Various attempts to get round the limitations of peer assessment in MOOCs have been tried such as calibrated peer reviews, based on averaging all the peer ratings, and Bayesian post hoc stabilization (Piech at al. 2013), but although these statistical techniques reduce the error (or spread) of peer review somewhat they still do not remove the problems of systematic errors of judgement in raters due to misconceptions. This is particularly a problem where a majority of participants fail to understand key concepts in a MOOC, in which case peer assessment becomes the blind leading the blind.

Automated Essay Scoring

This is another area where there have been attempts to automate scoring (Balfour, 2013). Although such methods are increasingly sophisticated, they are currently limited in terms of accurate assessment to measuring primarily technical writing skills, such as grammar, spelling, and sentence construction. Once again, they do not measure accurately longer essays where higher-level intellectual skills are demanded.

Badges, Certificates, and Microcredentials

Particularly in xMOOCs, participants may be awarded a certificate or a ‘badge’ for successful completion of the MOOC, based on a final test (usually computer-marked) which measures the level of learning in a course. However, most of the institutions offering MOOCs will not accept their own certificates for admission or credit within their own, campus-based programs. Probably nothing says more about the confidence in the quality of the assessment than this failure of MOOC providers to recognize their own teaching.

MOOC-based microcredentials are a more recent development. A microcredential is any one of a number of new certifications that cover more than a single course but are less than a full degree. Pickard (2018) provides an analysis of more than 450 MOOC-based microcredentials. Pickard states:

Microcredentials can be seen as part of a trend toward modularity and stackability in higher education, the idea being that each little piece of education can be consumed on its own or can be aggregated with other pieces up to something larger. Each course is made of units, each unit is made of lessons; courses can stack up to Specializations or XSeries; these can stack up to partial degrees such as MicroMasters, or all the way up to full degrees (though only some microcredentials are structured as pieces of degrees).

However, in her analysis, Pickard found that in the micro-credentials offered through the main MOOC platforms, such as Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn.

  • Student fees range from US$250 to US$17,000.
  • Some microcredentials, though not all, offer some opportunity to earn credit towards a degree program. Typically, university credit is awarded if and only if a student goes on to enroll in the particular degree program connected with the microcredential.
  • They are not accredited, recognized, or evaluated by third party organizations (except insofar as they pertain to university degree programs). This variability and lack of standardization poses a problem for both learners and employers, as it makes it difficult to compare the various microcredentials.
  • With so much variability, how would a prospective learner choose among the various options? Furthermore, without a detailed understanding of these options, how would an employer interpret or compare these microcredentials when they come upon a resume? 

Nevertheless, in a digital age, both workers and employers will increasingly look for ways to ‘accredit’ smaller units of learning than a degree, but in ways that they can be stacked towards eventually a full degree. The issue is whether tying this to the MOOC movement is the best way to go.

Surely a better way would be to develop microcredentials as part of or in parallel with a regular online masters program. For instance as early as 2003, the University of British Columbia in its online Master of Educational Technology was allowing students to take single courses at a time, or the five foundation courses for a post-graduate certificate, or add four more courses and a project to the certificate for a full Master’s degree. Such microcredentials would not be MOOCs, unless (a) they are open to anyone and (b) they are free or at such a low cost anyone can take them. Then the issue becomes whether the institution will accept such MOOC-like credentials as part of a full degree. If not, employers are unlikely to recognize such microcredentials, because they will not know what they are worth.

The Intent Behind Assessment

To evaluate assessment in MOOCs requires an examination of the intent behind assessment. There are many different purposes behind the assessment. Peer assessment and immediate feedback on computer-marked tests can be extremely valuable for formative assessment or feedback, enabling participants to see what they have understood and to help develop further their understanding of key concepts. In cMOOCs, as Suen points out, learning is measured as the communication that takes place between MOOC participants, resulting in crowdsourced validation of knowledge – it’s what the sum of all the participants come to believe to be true as a result of participating in the MOOC, so formal assessment is unnecessary. However, what is learned in this way is not necessarily academically validated knowledge, which to be fair, is not the concern of cMOOC proponents.

Academic assessment is a form of currency, related not only to measuring student achievement but also affecting student mobility (for example, entrance to graduate school) and perhaps more importantly employment opportunities and promotion. From a learner’s perspective, the validity of the currency – the recognition and transferability of the qualification – is essential. To date, MOOCs have been unable to demonstrate that they are able to assess accurately the learning achievements of participants beyond comprehension and knowledge of ideas, principles and processes (recognizing that there is some value in this alone). What MOOCs have not been able to demonstrate is that they can either develop or assess deep understanding or the intellectual skills required in a digital age. Indeed, this may not be possible within the constraints of massiveness, which is their major distinguishing feature from other forms of online learning.

5.6. What Do Students Learn in MOOCs?

This is a much more difficult question to answer because so little of the research to date (2019) has tried to answer this question. (One reason, as we shall see in the next section, is that assessment of learning in MOOCs remains a major challenge). There are at least two kinds of study: quantitative studies that seek to quantify learning gains; and qualitative studies that describe the experience of learners within MOOCs, which indirectly provide some insight into what they have learned.

Conceptual Learning

At the time of writing, the most quantitative study of learning in MOOCs has been by Colvin et al.(2014), who investigated ‘conceptual learning’ in an MIT Introductory Physics MOOC. Colvin and colleagues compared learner performance not only between different sub-categories of learners within the MOOC, such as those with no physics or math background with those such as physic teachers who had considerable prior knowledge, but also with on-campus students taking the same curriculum in a traditional campus teaching format. In essence, the study found no significant differences in learning gains between or within the two types of teaching, but it should be noted that the on-campus students were students who had failed an earlier version of the course and were retaking it.

This research is a classic example of the no significant difference in comparative studies in educational technology; other variables, such as differences in the types of students, were as important as the mode of delivery. Also, this MOOC design represents a behaviourist-cognitivist approach to learning that places heavy emphasis on correct answers to conceptual questions.

The Student Experience

here have been far more studies of the experience of learners within MOOCs, particularly focusing on the discussions within MOOCs (see for instance, Kop, 2011). In general (although there are exceptions), discussions are unmonitored, and it is left to participants to make connections and respond to other students’ comments.

However, there are some strong criticisms of the effectiveness of the discussion element of MOOCs for developing the high-level conceptual analysis required for academic learning. There is evidence from studies of credit-based online learning that to develop deep, conceptual learning, there is a need in most cases for intervention by a subject expert to clarify misunderstandings or misconceptions, to provide accurate feedback,  to ensure that the criteria for academic learning, such as  use of evidence, clarity of argument, and so on, are being met, and to ensure the necessary input and guidance to seek deeper understanding (see in particular Harasim, 2017).

Furthermore, the more massive the course, the more likely participants are to feel ‘overload, anxiety and a sense of loss’, if there is not some instructor intervention or structure imposed (Knox, 2014). Firmin et al. (2014) have shown that when there is some form of instructor ‘encouragement and support of student effort and engagement’, results improve for all participants in MOOCs. Without a structured role for subject experts, participants are faced with a wide variety of quality in terms of comments and feedback from other participants. There is again a great deal of research on the conditions necessary for the successful conduct of collaborative and co-operative group learning (see, for instance, Lave and Wenger, 1991, or Barkley, Major and Cross, 2014), and these findings certainly have not been generally applied to the management of MOOC discussions. 

Networked and Collaborative Learning

One counter-argument is that cMOOCs in particular develop a new form of learning based on networking and collaboration that is essentially different from academic learning, and cMOOCs are thus more appropriate to the needs of learners in a digital age. Adult participants in particular, it is claimed by Downes and Siemens, have the ability to self-manage the development of high-level conceptual learning.  cMOOCs are ‘demand’ driven, meeting the interests of individual students who seek out others with similar interests and the necessary expertise to support them in their learning, and for many this interest may well not include the need for deep, conceptual learning but more likely the appropriate applications of prior knowledge in new or specific contexts. All MOOCs do appear to work best for those who already have a high level of education and therefore bring many of the conceptual skills developed in formal education with them when they join a MOOC, and therefore contribute to helping those who come without such prior knowledge or skills.

The Need for Learner Support

Over time, as more experience is gained, MOOCs are likely to incorporate and adapt some of the findings from research on smaller group work to the much larger numbers in MOOCs. For instance, some MOOCs are using ‘volunteer’ or community tutors. The US State Department organized MOOC camps through US missions and consulates abroad to mentor MOOC participants. The camps included Fulbright scholars and embassy staff who lead discussions on content and topics for MOOC participants in countries abroad (Haynie, 2014).

Some MOOC providers, such as the University of British Columbia, paid a small cohort of academic assistants to monitor and contribute to the MOOC discussion forums (Engle, 2014). Engle reported that the use of academic assistants, as well as limited but effective interventions from the instructors themselves made the UBC MOOCs more interactive and engaging.

However, paying for people to monitor and support MOOCs will of course increase the cost to providers. Consequently, MOOCs are likely to develop new automated ways to manage discussions effectively in very large groups. For instance, the University of Edinburgh experimented with an automated ‘teacherbot’ that crawled through student and instructor Twitter posts associated with a MOOC and directed predetermined comments to students to prompt discussion and reflection (Bayne, 2015). These results and approaches are consistent with prior research on the importance of instructor presence for successful online learning in credit-based courses.

In the meantime, though, there is much work still to be done if MOOCs are to provide the support and structure needed to ensure deep, conceptual learning where this does not already exist in students. The development of the skills needed in a digital age is likely to be an even greater challenge when dealing with massive numbers. However, we need much more research into what participants actually learn in MOOCs and under what conditions before any firm conclusions can be drawn.

5.7. Branding

Hollands and Tirthali (2014) in their survey on institutional expectations for MOOCs, found that building and maintaining brand was the second most important reason for institutions launching MOOCs (the most important was extending reach, which can also be seen as partly a branding exercise). Institutional branding through the use of MOOCs has been helped by elite Ivy League universities such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard leading the charge, and by Coursera limiting access to its platform to only ‘top tier’ universities. This, of course, has led to a bandwagon effect, especially since many of the universities launching MOOCs had previously disdained to move into credit-based online learning. MOOCs provided a way for these elite institutions to jump to the head of the queue in terms of status as ‘innovators’ of online learning, even though they arrived late to the party.

It obviously makes sense for institutions to use MOOCs to bring their areas of specialist expertise to a much wider public, such as the University of Alberta offering a MOOC on dinosaurs, MIT on electronics, and Harvard on Ancient Greek Heroes. MOOCs certainly help to widen knowledge of the quality of an individual professor (who is usually delighted to reach more students in one MOOC than in a lifetime of on-campus teaching). MOOCs are also a good way to give a glimpse of the quality of courses and programs offered by an institution.

However, it is difficult to measure the real impact of MOOCs on branding. As Hollands and Tirthali put it:

While many institutions have received significant media attention as a result of their MOOC activities, isolating and measuring impact of any new initiative on brand is a difficult exercise. Most institutions are only just beginning to think about how to capture and quantify branding-related benefits.

In particular, these elite institutions do not need MOOCs to boost the number of applicants for their campus-based programs (none to date is willing to accept successful completion of a MOOC for admission to credit programs), since elite institutions have no difficulty in attracting already highly qualified students.

Furthermore, once every other institution starts offering MOOCs, the branding effect gets lost to some extent. Indeed, exposing poor quality teaching or course planning to many thousands can have a negative impact on an institution’s brand, as Georgia Institute of Technology, found when one of its MOOCs crashed and burned (Jaschik, 2013). However, by and large, most MOOCs succeed in the sense of bringing an institution’s reputation in terms of knowledge and expertise to many more people than it would through any other form of teaching or publicity.

5.8. Costs and Economies of Scale

Figure 8: The MOOC value proposition is that MOOCs can eliminate the variable costs of course delivery. Image: © OpenTuition.com, 2014

One main strength claimed for MOOCs is that they are free to participants. Once again this is more true in principle than in practice, because MOOC providers may charge a range of fees, especially for assessment. Furthermore, although MOOCs may be free for participants, they are not without substantial cost to the provider institutions. Also, there are large differences in the costs of xMOOCs and cMOOCs, the latter being generally much cheaper to develop, although there are still some opportunity or actual costs even for cMOOCs.

The Cost of MOOC Production and Delivery

There is still very little information to date on the actual costs of designing and delivering a MOOC as there are not enough published studies to draw firm conclusions about the costs of MOOCs. However, we do have some data. The University of Ottawa (2013) estimated the cost of developing an xMOOC, based on figures provided to the university by Coursera, and on their own knowledge of the cost of developing online courses for credit, at around $100,000.

Engle (2014) has reported on the actual cost of five MOOCs from the University of British Columbia. There are two important features concerning the UBC MOOCs that do not necessarily apply to other MOOCs. First, the UBC MOOCs used a wide variety of video production methods, from full studio production to desktop recording, so development costs varied considerably, depending on the sophistication of the video production technique. Second, the UBC MOOCs made extensive use of paid academic assistants, who monitored discussions and adapted or changed course materials as a result of student feedback, so there were substantial delivery costs as well.

Appendix B of the UBC report gives a pilot total of $217,657, but this excludes academic assistance or, perhaps the most significant cost, instructor time. Academic assistance came to 25 percent of the overall cost in the first year (excluding the cost of faculty). Working from the video production costs ($95,350) and the proportion of costs (44 percent) devoted to video production in Figure 1 in the report, I estimate the direct cost at $216,700, or approximately $54,000 per MOOC, excluding faculty time and co-ordination support (that is, excluding program administration and overheads), but including academic assistance. However, the range of cost is almost as important. The video production costs for the MOOC which used intensive studio production were more than six times the video production costs of one of the other MOOCs.

The Comparative Costs of Credit-based Online Courses

The main cost factors or variables in credit-based online and distance learning are relatively well understood, from previous research by Rumble (2001) and Hülsmann (2003). Using a similar costing methodology, I tracked and analyzed the cost of an online master’s program at the University of British Columbia over a seven-year period (Bates and Sangrà, 2011). This program used mainly a learning management system as the core technology, with instructors both developing the course and providing online learner support and assessment, assisted where necessary by extra adjunct faculty for handling larger class enrolments.

I found in my analysis of the costs of the UBC program that in 2003, development costs were approximately $20,000 to $25,000 per course. However, over a seven-year period, course development constituted less than 15 percent of the total cost, and occurred mainly in the first year or so of the program. Delivery costs, which included providing online learner support and student assessment, constituted more than a third of the total cost, and of course continued each year the course was offered. Thus, in credit-based online learning, delivery costs tend to be more than double the development costs over the life of a program.

The main difference then between MOOCs, credit-based online teaching and campus-based teaching is that in principle MOOCs eliminate all delivery costs, because MOOCs do not provide learner support or instructor-delivered assessment, although again in practice this is not always true.

Opportunity Costs

There is also clearly a large opportunity cost involved in offering xMOOCs. By definition, the most highly valued faculty are involved in offering MOOCs. In a large research university, such faculty are likely to have, at a maximum, a teaching load of four to six courses a year. Although most instructors volunteer to do MOOCs, their time is limited. Either it means dropping one-credit course for at least one semester, equivalent to 25 percent or more of their teaching load, or xMOOC development and delivery replaces time spent doing research. Furthermore, unlike credit-based courses, which run from anywhere between five to seven years, MOOCs are often offered only once or twice.

Comparing the Cost of MOOCs with Online Credit Courses

However, one looks at it, the cost of xMOOC development, without including the time of the MOOC instructor tends to be almost double the cost of developing an online credit course using a learning management system, because of the use of video in MOOCs. If the cost of the instructor is included, xMOOC production costs come closer to three times that of a similar length online credit course, especially given the extra time faculty tend put in for such a public demonstration of their teaching in a MOOC. xMOOCs could (and some do) use cheaper production methods, such as an LMS instead of video, for content delivery, or using and re-editing video recordings of classroom lectures via lecture capture.

Without learner support or academic assistance, though, delivery costs for MOOCs are zero, and this is where the huge potential for savings exist. If the cost per participant is calculated the MOOC unit costs are very low, combining both production and delivery costs. Even if the cost per student successfully obtaining an end of the course certificate is calculated it will be many times lower than the cost of an online or campus-based successful student. If we take a MOOC costing roughly $100,000 to develop, and 5,000 participants complete the end of course certificate, the average cost per successful participant is $20. However, this assumes that the same type of knowledge and skills is being assessed for both a MOOC and for a graduate masters program; usually this not the case.

Costs Versus Outputs

The issue then is whether MOOCs can succeed without the cost of learner support and human assessment, or more likely, whether MOOCs can substantially reduce delivery costs through automation without loss of quality in learner performance. There is no evidence to date though that they can do this in terms of higher-order learning skills and ‘deep’ knowledge. To assess this kind of learning requires setting assignments that test such knowledge, and such assessments usually need human marking, which then adds to cost. We also know from prior research from successful online credit programs that active instructor online presence is a critical factor for successful online learning. Thus adequate learner support and assessment remain a major challenge for MOOCs. MOOCs then is a good way to teach certain levels of knowledge but will have major structural problems in teaching other types of knowledge. Unfortunately, it is the type of knowledge most needed in a digital world that MOOCs struggle to teach.

MOOC Business Models and Cost-Benefits

In terms of sustainable business models, Baker and Passmore (2016) examined several different possible business models to support MOOCs (but do not offer any actual costing). The elite universities have been able to move into xMOOCs because of generous donations from private foundations and use of endowment funds, but these forms of funding are limited for most institutions. Coursera and Udacity have the opportunity to develop successful business models through various means, such as charging MOOC provider institutions for use of their platform, by collecting fees for badges or certificates, through the sale of participant data, through corporate sponsorship, or through direct advertising.

However, particularly for publicly funded universities or colleges, most of these sources of income are not available or permitted, so it is hard to see how they can begin to recover the cost of a substantial investment in MOOCs, even with ‘cannibalising’ MOOC material for or from on-campus use. Every time a MOOC is offered, this takes away resources that could be used for online credit programs. Thus, institutions are faced with some hard decisions about where to invest their resources for online learning. The case for putting scarce resources into MOOCs is far from clear unless some way can be found to give credit for successful MOOC completion.

5.9. Summary of Strengths and Weaknesses

The main points of this analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs can be summarised as follows:


  • MOOCs, particularly xMOOCs, deliver high-quality content from some of the world’s best universities for free or at little cost to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.
  • MOOCs can be useful for opening access to high-quality content, particularly in developing countries, but to do so successfully will require a good deal of adaptation, and substantial investment in local support and partnerships.
  • MOOCs are valuable for developing basic conceptual learning, and for creating large online communities of interest or practice.
  • MOOCs are an extremely valuable form of lifelong learning and continuing education;
  • MOOCs have forced conventional and especially elite institutions to reappraise their strategies towards online and open learning.
  • Institutions have been able to extend their brand and status by making public their expertise and excellence in certain academic areas.
  • MOOCs main value proposition is to eliminate through computer automation and/or peer-to-peer communication the very large variable costs in higher education associated with providing learner support and quality assessment.


  • The high registration numbers for MOOCs are misleading; less than half of registrants actively participate, and of these, only a small proportion successfully complete the course; nevertheless, absolute numbers completing are still higher than for conventional courses.
  • MOOCs are expensive to develop, and although commercial organizations offering MOOC platforms have opportunities for sustainable business models, it is difficult to see how publicly funded higher education institutions can develop sustainable business models for MOOCs.
  • MOOCs tend to attract those with already a high level of education, rather than widen access.
  • MOOCs so far have been limited in the ability to develop high-level academic learning, or the high-level intellectual skills needed in a digital society.
  • Assessment of the higher levels of learning remains a challenge for MOOCs, to the extent that most MOOC providers will not recognize their own MOOCs for credit.
  • MOOC materials may be limited by copyright or time restrictions for re-use as open educational resources.

6. Political, Social and Economic Drivers of MOOCs

Figure 9: MOOC mania Image: © Park Ridge Underground, 2010

6.1. Why the Fuss about MOOCs?

It can be seen from the previous section that the pros and cons of MOOCs are finely balanced. Given though the obvious questions about the value of MOOCs, and the fact that before MOOCs arrived, there had been substantial but quiet progress for over ten years in the use of online learning for undergraduate and graduate programs, you might be wondering why MOOCs have commanded so much media interest, and especially why a large number of government policy makers, economists, and computer scientists have become so ardently supportive of MOOCs, and why there has been such a strong, negative reaction, not only from many university and college instructors, who understandably feel threatened by the implications of MOOCs, but also from many professionals in online learning (see for instance, Hill, 2012; Bates, 2012; Daniel, 2012; Watters2012), who might be expected to be more supportive of MOOCs.

It needs to be recognised that the discourse around MOOCs is not usually based on a cool, rational, evidence-based analysis of the pros and cons of MOOCs, but is more likely to be driven by emotion, self-interest, fear, or ignorance of what education is actually about. Thus, it is important to explore the political, social and economic factors that have driven MOOC mania.

6.2. Massive, Free and Made in America!

This is what I will call the intrinsic reason for MOOC mania. It is not surprising that, since the first MOOC from Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller each attracted over 200,000 sign-ups from around the world, since the courses were free, and since it came from professors at one of the most prestigious private universities in the USA, the American media were all over it. It was big news in its own right; however you look at it.

6.3. It’s the Ivy Leagues!

Until MOOCs came along, the major Ivy League universities in the USA, such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley, as well as many of the most prestigious universities in Canada, such as the University of Toronto and McGill, and elsewhere, had largely ignored online learning in any form (the exception was MIT, which made much of its teaching material available for free via the OpenCourseWare project).

However, by 2011, online learning, in the form of for credit undergraduate and graduate courses, was making big inroads at many other, very respectable universities, such as Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, and the University of Maryland in the USA, and also in many of the top tier public universities in Canada and elsewhere, to the extent that one in three students in the USA were taking online courses (Allen and Seaman, 2014). Furthermore, at least in Canada, the online courses were often getting good completion rates and matching on-campus courses for quality (Ontario, 2011).

The Ivy League and other highly prestigious universities that had ignored online learning were beginning to look increasingly out of touch by 2011. By launching into MOOCs, these prestigious universities could jump to the head of the queue in terms of technology innovation, while at the same time protecting their selective and highly personal and high cost campus programs from direct contact with online learning. In other words, MOOCs gave these prestigious universities a safe sandbox in which to explore online learning. At the same time, the involvement of the Ivy League universities in online learning for the first time gave credibility to MOOCs, and, inadvertently, online learning as a whole.

6.4. It’s Disruptive!

For years before 2011, various economists, philosophers and industrial gurus had been predicting that education was the next big area for disruptive change due to the march of new technologies (see for instance Lyotard, 1979; Tapscott (undated); Christensen, 2016). However, although online learning in credit courses had been quietly absorbed into the mainstream of university teaching, without any signs of major disruption, MOOCs were a potentially massive change, evidence at long last for the theory of disruption in the education sector.

6.5. It’s Silicon Valley!

It is no coincidence that the first MOOCs were all developed by entrepreneurial computer scientists. Ng and Koller very quickly went on to create Coursera as a private, commercial company, followed shortly by Thrun, who created Udacity. Anant Agarwal, a computer scientist at MIT, went on to head up edX.

The first MOOCs were very typical of Silicon Valley start-ups: a bright idea (massive, open online courses with cloud-based, relatively simple software to handle the numbers), thrown out into the market to see how it might work, supported by more technology and ideas (in this case, learning analytics, automated marking, peer assessment) to deal with any snags or problems. Building a sustainable business model would come later, when some of the dust had settled.

As a result, it is not surprising that almost all the early MOOCs completely ignored any pedagogical theory about best practices in teaching online, or any prior research on factors associated with success or failure in online learning. It is also not surprising as a result that a very low percentage of participants actually successfully completed MOOCs.

6.6. It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Of all the reasons for MOOC mania, Bill Clinton’s famous election slogan resonates the most. It should be remembered that by 2011, the consequences of the disastrous financial collapse of 2008 were working their way through the economy, and particularly were impacting on the finances of state governments in the USA.

The recession meant that states were suddenly desperately short of tax revenues, and were unable to meet the financial demands of state higher education systems. For instance, California’s community college system, the nation’s largest, suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts between 2008-2012, resulting in a shortfall of 500,000 places in its campus-based colleges (Rivera, 2012). Free MOOCs were seen as manna from heaven by the state governor, Jerry Brown (see for instance, To, 2014). 

One consequence of rapid cuts to government funding was a sharp spike in tuition fees, bringing the real cost of higher education sharply into focus. Tuition fees in the USA have increased by 7 per cent per annum over the last 10 years, compared with an inflation rate of 4 per cent per annum. Here at last was a possible way to rein in the high cost of higher education. By 2015 though the economy in the USA had picked up and revenues were flowing back into state coffers, and so the immediate pressure for more radical solutions to the cost of higher education began to ease.

6.7. The Future of MOOCs

It will be interesting to see if MOOC mania continues as the economy grows.  Class Central provides ongoing monitoring of developments in MOOCs around the world. The overall numbers up to 2019 are impressive but the number of learners added in 2018 was just 20 million, which was less than 23 million for the previous two years (Shah, 2019). So the rate at which new users are coming into the MOOC space is decreasing.

However, MOOCs continue to evolve. For a start, there has been a slow growth in complete degrees that can be offered through MOOCs. In 2018 there were 45 degrees on offer. While this is a significant development, though, the numbers are still quite small, given the number of conventional degrees available worldwide. The other main market is corporate training. Business models are also evolving with revenues continuing to increase into 2018, with Coursera alone recording $140 million in revenues. However, although the number of MOOC courses offered continues to increase, the average number of students is decreasing as more choices become available. 

The rate of adoption also varies considerably by country. For instance, in 2017, only 18% of Canadian post-secondary institutions were offering MOOCs, compared with 82% that were offering fully online courses for credit (Donovan et al., 2018). However, the growth of MOOCs in China, India and Europe continues apace. What is not clear is whether the institutions providing MOOCs are getting any direct financial returns for their investments as distinct from the platform providers.

6.8. Don’t Panic!

These are all very powerful drivers of MOOC mania, which makes it all the more important to try to be clear and cool-headed about the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs. The real test is whether MOOCs can help develop the knowledge and skills that learners need in a knowledge-based society. The answer of course is yes and no.

As a low-cost supplement to formal education, they can be quite valuable, but not as a complete replacement. They can at present teach basic conceptual learning, comprehension and in a narrow range of activities, application of knowledge. They can be useful for building communities of practice, where already well-educated people or people with a deep, shared passion for a topic can learn from one another, another form of continuing education.

However, certainly to date, MOOCs have not been able to demonstrate that they can lead to transformative learning, deep intellectual understanding, evaluation of complex alternatives, and evidence-based decision-making, and without greater emphasis on expert-based learner support and more qualitative forms of assessment, they probably never will, at least without substantial increases in their costs.

At the end of the day, there is a choice for institutions between throwing more resources into MOOCs and hoping that some of their fundamental flaws can be overcome without too dramatic an increase in costs, or investing in other forms of online learning and educational technology that could lead to more cost-effective learning outcomes in terms of the needs of learners in a digital age.

7. Why MOOCs Are Only Part of the Answer?

Image: Your Training Edge, 2015

7.1. The Importance of Context and Design

I am frequently labeled as a major critic of MOOCs, which is somewhat surprising since I have been a long-time advocate of online learning. In fact, I do believe MOOCs are an important development, and under certain circumstances, they can be of tremendous value in education.

But as always, context is important. There is not one but many different markets and needs for education. A student leaving high school at eighteen has very different needs and will want to learn in a very different context from a 35-year-old employed engineer with a family who needs some management education. Similarly, a 65-year-old man struggling to cope with his wife’s early onset of Alzheimer’s and desperate for help is in a totally different situation to either the high school student or the engineer. When designing educational programs, it has to be horses for courses. There is no single silver bullet or solution for every one of these various contexts.

Secondly, as with all forms of education, how MOOCs are designed matters a great deal. If they are designed inappropriately, in the sense of not developing the knowledge and skills needed by a particular learner in a particular context, then they have little or no value for that learner. However, designed differently and a MOOC may well meet that learner’s needs.

7.2. The Limitations of xMOOCs

The real threat of xMOOCs is to the very large face-to-face lecture classes found in many universities at the undergraduate level. MOOCs are a more effective way of replacing such lectures. They are more interactive and permanent so students can go over the materials many times. I have heard MOOC instructors argue that their MOOCs are better than their classroom lectures. They put more care and effort into them.

However, we should question why we are teaching in this way on campus. Content is now freely available anywhere on the Internet – including MOOCs. What is needed is information management: how to identify the knowledge you need, how to evaluate it, how to apply it. xMOOCs do not do that. They pre-select and package the information. My big concern with xMOOCs is their limitation, as currently designed, for developing the higher-order intellectual skills needed in a digital world. Unfortunately, xMOOCs are taking the least appropriate design model for developing 21st century skills from on-campus teaching and moving this inappropriate design model online. Just because the lectures come from elite universities does not necessarily mean that learners will develop high-level intellectual skills, even though the content is of the highest quality. More importantly, with MOOCs, relatively few students succeed, in terms of assessment, and those that do are tested mainly on comprehension and limited application of knowledge.

We can and have done much better in terms of skills for a digital age with other pedagogical approaches, both on campus, such as problem- or inquiry-based learning, and online using more constructivist approaches in credit courses, such as online collaborative learning. However, these alternative methods to lectures do not scale so easily. The interaction between an expert and a novice still remains critical for developing deep understanding, transformative learning resulting in the learner seeing the world differently, and for developing high levels of evidence-based critical thinking, evaluation of complex alternatives, and high-level decision-making. Computer technology to date is extremely poor at enabling this kind of learning to develop. This is why credit-based classroom and online learning still aim to have a relatively low instructor:student ratio and still need to focus a great deal on the interaction between instructor and students.

However, xMOOCs are valuable as a form of continuing education, or as a source of open educational materials that can be part of a broader educational offering. They can be a valuable supplement to campus-based education. They are not a replacement though for either conventional education or the current design of online credit programs. As a form of continuing education, low completion rates and the lack of formal credit is not of great significance. However, completion rates and quality assessment DO matter if MOOCs are being seen as a substitute or a replacement for formal education, even classroom lectures.

7.3. Undermining the Public Higher Education System

The real danger is that xMOOCs may be used to undermine what is admittedly an expensive public higher education system. If elite universities can deliver MOOCs for free, why do we need low quality and high-cost state universities? The risk is a sharply divided two-tier system, with a relatively small number of campus-based elite universities catering to the rich and privileged, and developing the knowledge and skills that will provide rich rewards, and the masses being fed xMOOC-delivered courses, with state universities providing minimal and low-cost learner support for such courses. This would be both a social and economic disaster because it would fail to produce enough learners with the high-level skills that are going to be needed for good jobs in the coming years – unless you believe that automation will remove all decently paid jobs except for a tiny elite (bring on the Hunger Games).

Content accounts for less than 15 percent of the total cost over five years for credit-based online programs; the main costs required to ensure high-quality outcomes and high rates of completion are spent on learner support, providing the learning that matters most. The kind of MOOCs being promoted by politicians and the media fail spectacularly to do this. We do need to be careful that the open education movement in general, and MOOCs in particular, are not used as a stick by those in the United States and elsewhere who are deliberately trying to undermine public education for ideological and commercial reasons. On their own, open content, OERs and MOOCs do not automatically lead to open access to high-quality credentials for everyone. In the end, a well-funded public higher education system remains the best way to assure access to higher education for all.

7.4. The Potential of cMOOCs

cMOOCs have the most potential, because lifelong learning will become increasingly important, and the power of bringing a mix of already well educated and knowledgeable people from around the world to work with other committed and enthusiastic learners on common problems or areas of interest could truly revolutionize not just education, but the world in general.

However, cMOOCs at present are unable to do this, because they lack organization and do not apply what is already known about how online groups work best. Once we learn these lessons and apply them, though, cMOOCs can be a tremendous tool for tackling some of the great challenges we face in the areas of global health, climate change, civil rights, and other ‘good civil ventures’. The beauty of cMOOCs is that every participant has the power to define and solve the problems being tackled.

Scenario F that ends this chapter is an example of how cMOOCs could be used for such ‘good civil ventures.’ In Scenario F, the MOOC is not a replacement for formal education, but a rocket that needs formal education as its launch pad. Behind this MOOC are the resources of a very powerful institution, that provides the initial impetus, simple to use the software, overall structure, organization and co-ordination within the MOOC, and some essential human resources for supporting the MOOC when running. At the same time, it does not have to be an educational institution. It could be a public health authority, or a broadcasting organization, or an international charity, or a consortium of organizations with a common interest. Also, of course, there is the danger that even cMOOCs could be manipulated by corporate or government interests.

Having said that, there is enormous scope for improvements within the public higher education system. MOOCs, open education and new media offer promising ways to bring about some much-needed improvements. Scenario F (coming up next) is one possible way in which MOOCs could bring about much needed social change.

However, MOOCs must build on what we already know from the use of credit-based online learning, from prior experience in open and distance learning, and designing courses and programs in a variety of ways appropriate to the wide range of learning needs. MOOCs can be one important part of that environment, but not a replacement for other forms of educational provision that meets different needs.

8. Scenario: How to Cope with Being Old

Figure 11: Image: WhatSheSaidradio.com

Beth Carter Good evening, everyone. This is Beth Carter, for BBC Radio. The Open University yesterday announced that it had signed up half a million participants in what they claim is now the world’s largest online course. The OU’s MOOC is about something many of you will be familiar with – getting old, and the many challenges and opportunities that come with that.

In the studio with me is Jane Dyson, who is the course co-ordinator. Jane: at 55, and coming from a social services background, you seem to be the least likely person to be running such a massive, technology-based program. How did that happen?

Jane Dyson: (laughing). Well, it’s all my own fault! I’ve been an OU graduate for many years, and they have an online alumni forum, where they ask former students for ideas about what are the most pressing issues we see in the world, and what the OU could do to address some of these issues. I do a lot of work advising elderly people, their families and even employers these days about the many different kinds of issues that arise with aging.

The OU has many courses and online materials that deal with lots of these issues, but you have to sign up for a degree or diploma or you can just get the materials online but without any support. Also, there are just too many different issues for even the OU to cover in its formal courses. So I suggested that they should do a MOOC where all the different people involved – health care workers, social workers, care givers, family, and most important of all, old people themselves – could talk about their problems and challenges, and what services are available, what people can do for themselves and so on.

Beth Carter. So, what happened then?

Jane Dyson. The OU asked me to come into my local OU regional office, and I met with several people from the OU, and after that meeting, they asked me if I would be willing to co-ordinate such a course.

Beth Carter. Now tell me more about MOOCs. I remember they were big about 10 years ago, then they went all quiet, and we haven’t heard much about them since. So what’s made this MOOC so popular?

Jane Dyson. The problem with the earlier MOOCs was that participants just got lost in them. Many of the MOOCs were just lectures and then it was up to the participants to help each other out. There was no organization.

What the OU did was to ask those who signed up for the ‘Aging’ MOOC to fill in a very simple online questionnaire that asked for just a few details such as where they lived, whether they were professionals in aging, or family, or elderly people themselves, and then used that data to automatically allocate participants into groups, so that there was a mix of participants in each group.

Beth Carter. Why was that important?

Jane Dyson. Well, at the OU, the Institute of Educational Technology had done some research on the early MOOCs and had identified this problem of how to get groups to work in large online classes. They worked with another research group in the OU called the KMI, who developed the software we are using that allocates participants into groups so that there is enough expertise and support in each group to help with the issues raised in the group discussions.

Beth Carter. And how does that work?

Jane Dyson. You wouldn’t believe the range of issues or problems that come up. For instance, we have family members desperate because their father or mother is suffering from dementia, but don’t know what to do to help them. We have some seniors who feel that their families are trying to force them out of their homes, while they feel they are quite capable of looking after themselves. We have social workers who feel that they are liable to get fired or even prosecuted because they can’t handle their case load. And we have some participants who are just old and lonely and want someone to talk to.

When we put all these participants into an online discussion forum, the results are amazing. What’s really critical is getting the right mix of people in the same group, with enough expertise to provide help, and having someone in that group who knows how to moderate the discussions. We have a huge list of services available not just in Britain but in many of the other countries from which we have students. So, the course is a kind of self-help, support service within a broader community of practice.

Beth Carter. Let’s talk about the international students. As I understand it, almost half the participants are from outside the U.K.

Jane Dyson. That’s right. The problems of an aging population aren’t just British. The OU is part of a very powerful network of open universities around the world. When we were talking about starting this course, the OU went to several other open universities and asked them if they were interested in participating. So we have participants from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Japan, Canada, the USA, and many other countries, who participate in the English language version.

In Spain, though, we have a ‘mirror’ site, with materials in Spanish, Basque and Catalan, and the discussion forums are managed by the Open University of Catalonia. That brings in not only participants from Spain but also from Latin America. We are about to develop a similar agreement with the Open University of China, which we expect will bring in another half-million participants. What’s really neat is that because we have so many participants, there are always enough dual-language participants to move stuff from one language discussion forum to another.

Beth Carter. So, what’s next?

Jane Dyson. One of the big issues that keep coming up in the Aging course is the issue of mental health. This of course is not just about elderly people. The Aging course has already resulted in petitions to parliament about better services for isolated elderly people, and I think we will see some positive developments on this front over the next couple of years. So I think the OU is thinking about a similar MOOC on mental health, and I’d really like to be part of that initiative.

Beth Carter. Well, thank you, Jane. Next week we will be discussing online gambling, with an addiction counselor.

[This was developed as a ‘what if?’ scenario for the U.K. Open University as part of its planning for teaching and learning in 2014.]

9. Activity (Reflective Thinking, Note Taking and Discussion)

This activity is optional. It is presented to facilitate your reflective thinking on the issues. There are no feedback. We encourage you to discuss these with your colleague.

Designing MOOC

1. When is a MOOC a MOOC and when is it not a MOOC? Can you identify the common features? Is MOOC still a useful term?

2. If you were to design a MOOC, who would be the target audience? What kind of MOOC would it be? What form of assessment could you use? What would make you think your MOOC was a success, after it was delivered? What criteria would you use?

10. Key Takeaways


Key takeaways from this lesson are:

  • MOOCs are forcing every higher education institution to think carefully both about its strategy for online teaching and its approach to open education.
  • MOOCs are not the only form of online learning or open educational resources (OERs). It is important to look at the strengths and weaknesses of MOOCs within the overall context of online learning and openness.
  • There are considerable differences in the design of MOOCs, reflecting different purposes and philosophies.
  • There are currently major structural limitations in MOOCs for developing deep or transformative learning, or for developing the high-level knowledge and skills needed in the digital age.
  • MOOCs are still at a relatively early stage of maturity. As their strengths and weaknesses become clearer, and as experience in improving their design grows, they are likely to occupy a significant niche within the higher education learning environment.
  • MOOCs could well replace some forms of traditional teaching (such as large lecture classes). However, MOOCs are more likely to remain as an important supplement or alternative to other conventional education methods. They are on their own not a solution to the high cost of higher education, although MOOCs will continue to be an important factor in forcing change.
  • Perhaps the greatest value of MOOCs in the future will be for providing a means for tackling large global problems through community action.