By Sara Custer
Just as it's hard imagine what life was like before the Internet, after 2012's breakout year for Coursera, Edx, and Udacity among others, it's hard to speak about higher education without mention of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Despite conflicting discourse from both critics and supporters of the platform, most of the industry agrees that it's too early to tell exactly how MOOCs will affect the landscape of higher education, and if they will ever be profitable.
But the sector has indeed been forever changed, with big name U.S. universities such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford joining the bandwagon and making some of their courses accessible for free via a MOOC platform. University courses are now available to anyone with an Internet connection—so how might this change international education?
Profiles of the MOOC student
The data around MOOCs remains incomplete, but figures so far show that about 80 percent of students participating already have a college degree and the dropout rate hovers around 90 percent. The New York Times declared 2012 the year of the MOOC, but their impact is being guessed at, with investment into MOOCs adding to the fervor about an "online game-changer" in education.
The most complete research on MOOCs to date was recently released by the University of Edinburgh after it delivered the first round of its six-course MOOC offering. A pre-launch survey sent to 217,512 e-mail accounts a week before the course began yielded 45,182 responses (a hit rate of 21 percent) and revealed that some 200 countries were represented in the first cohort, the majority of students coming from the United States, United Kingdom, Spain, and Brazil. Thirty-three percent of respondents were between 25 and 35 years old and were mostly in the "teaching and education" field or students at university. Seventy percent said they had completed a degree course.
The data supports four participant profiles identified by Ronaldo Mota, visiting professorial fellow at the Institute of Education of the University of London (and former interim minister at the Brazilian Ministry of Education). The first covers traditional students taking a MOOC for credit on a degree course. Then there are "job-seekers," who will pay for a certificate proving completion in order to improve employment prospects (but this in itself is a hot potato—the MOOC model currently relies on peer assessment, although institutions are starting to look at the possibility of official certification, too).
The third type of participant is the student-at-leisure, who will participate and complete the course out of interest. Finally, there are the most common of all MOOC students, those simply intrigued by the idea and who will sign up out of curiosity, not follow the course material closely, and likely drop out.
Understanding and catering to these diverse student profiles will be integral to universities' success, Mota said. "MOOCs should be directed to students regularly by one institution and even to those who do it just for curiosity. The secret is to try to build a synergy between the very diverse profiles."
Offering credit along with MOOC completion has not caught on and remains at the center of the debate among educators, although earlier this year the American Council on Education (ACE) recommended five courses on the Coursera platform for accreditation. Still, none of the universities providing the courses have confirmed whether they will award credit.
What's in it for universities?
There is an element of the bandwagon about the hype surrounding MOOCs with universities worried about missing the boat. All are aware that a presence in this space—whatever the student demographic—carries inherent brand name awareness. The other point is that with the evolution of tech platforms such as MIT and Harvard's Edx hosting MOOCs, it is a relatively low-stakes game for institutions. "Joining consortia is a rational way for universities to share the cost and reputational risk of online provisions," wrote William Lawton and Alex Katsomitros of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education in a recent report on the subject.
There are costs, of course, but the real revolution is in how funding for access to education is raised through the model, they say. "The modus operandi of the traditional [higher education] sector is taking a lot of money from a controlled number of students. With MOOCs it is charging hundreds of thousands of students a minimum fee."
If universities have yet to benefit from MOOCs financially, platform provider Coursera, launched by two Stanford University computer science professors in April 2012, has shown its profit potential. It recently raised US$43 million (on top of US$22 million last year) from private investors to double its employee base to about 100, extend its mobile apps, and enable students to be charged for completion certificates.
What's the international reach of MOOCs?
Initially the overwhelming majority of MOOC courses came from U.S. institutions, but a number of platforms have been developed in other countries including Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The UK's Open University will offer courses from 12 UK universities via its FutureLearn platform starting this year. In Germany, the OpenCourseWorld platform for free online courses is offering German-language MOOCs from Saarland University.
The French government meanwhile has launched France Université Numérique (France FUN), a national platform that will aim to offer 20 percent of French university courses online by 2017, while Spain's Universidad de Alicante is working with Google on a MOOC project.
Despite the growth, language and educational background can often stop many around the world accessing MOOCs. According to Patrick McAndrew, professor of open education at the Open University (UK), maintaining the "open" facet of MOOCs is key to attracting more non-English speakers. "We need to work in a way where other people who need different language versions can create them and they would become part of the global community trying to tackle them," he says.
Online communities offering translated versions of U.S. courses have popped up around the world, fueled by the demand from non-English speaking students and the open access nature of MOOCs. For example, Veduca in Brazil offers its one million plus Portuguese-speaking users more than 200 translated courses from institutions including New York University, Stanford, and Harvard.
There is also unX, a project which claims to be the first entrepreneurial Latin American community, which offers an entirely open learning system through translated courses from MIT. It tells users they can join an online community to "find the training they need to fulfill a project from business ideas to the creation of an SME to finding new partners."
Structuring courses to include students with lower education backgrounds is also needed to bring more learners on board. "This means designing material for people who've got less strong educational backgrounds so that you enable them to carry out the right tasks," says McAndrew.
Knowing more about the students who have signed up will also help institutions deliver targeted courses. The University of London has more than 100 years of experience with broad access distance learning and aims to launch its first MOOC this year. Jenny Hamilton, director of international programs, seeks to "gain [such] insights to make adjustments accordingly before we go live."
Thinking outside of OECD countries
While MOOCs make access to education more plausible, they do not offer a "live" educational experience—something doubters say will affect their long term impact. David Webster, religion, philosophy, and ethics professor and e-learning developer at the University of Gloucestershire, also underlines the obstacle of certification, saying it could hold back job-seeking MOOC students.
"To get an education in a lot of developing countries you need to be certified. The expansion of MOOCs may break in developing countries unless they get sourced out or unless people opt into an assessment or accreditation procedure."
Others warn the "massive" in MOOC brings scale but security issues when it comes to certification, given most rely on peer assessment. One response from tech platform Udacity has been to team up with Pearson VUE test centers to offer paid-for supervised exams.
MOOCs are also perhaps most exciting when considered as a global phenomenon, but they are not quite there yet. That's not say there isn't the potential, though. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, students from Central Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are the most mobile in the world, while Ambient Insight has praised Africa and Asia's dynamic e-learning markets (Vietnam and Malaysia are said to be particularly strong).
Meanwhile, about 6 out of 100 tertiary students from Central Asia and 5 out of 100 from sub-Saharan Africa go abroad to study. MOOCs offer these students low-cost opportunities to get a foreign education at home. And in India alone, the size of the online education market is set to double to $40 billion by 2017.
In Brazil, the country that provided Edinburgh with one of its largest cohorts, Mota says MOOCs have great potential for the newly emerging middle classes. "They are demanding education, and education on a huge scale. The state can't provide for the traditional ways of attending universities. So you can see an enormous space for initiatives like MOOCs, especially in vocational courses."
Traditional outbound student markets where international branch campuses now sit could also be a hotbed for MOOCs, according to Rahul Choudaha, director of Research and Advisory Services at World Education Services.
"Branch campuses are infrastructure-intensive efforts with high financial and reputational risk. In contrast, MOOCs offer a low-cost, flexible alternative for ‘global' students to potentially earn a foreign credential," he writes on his blog, dreducation.com. "In the next few years MOOCs will mature from irrational exuberance to a more sustainable model that fundamentally changes the form and character of foreign branch campuses."
Editor's Note: MOOCs have captured higher education's attention, and much has been written recently about their impact as well as their potential for affecting international education. This recent article by The PIE News reporter Sara Custer brings perspectives from outside the United States, which we believe will be of particular interest to our Trends & Insights readers. This article was originally written for The PIE Review magazine. It has been reprinted with permission.