5. Strengths and Weaknesses of MOOCs

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.