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Old wine in new bottles?

education Updated: Oct 22, 2014 12:46 IST
Andreas M Kaplan

Last year we heard stories of how Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) would entirely disrupt the higher education landscape. Now, voices of disappointment are beginning to emerge, with education industry analysts expressing concern about the evolution of MOOCs thus far and their lack of tangible results. However, MOOCs seem to be traversing the trough of disillusionment, given the apparently inflated initial expectations, which could not be met. This raises the question: what does the future hold for MOOCs, and what is their actual potential for influencing the education business?

Not everybody’s cup of tea: Currently, MOOCs are not for all personality types and occasions. A key factor in the disappointment described above is that MOOCs, in their current form, are simply not for everybody and do not address all types of needs.

First of all, to successfully follow a MOOC from beginning to end, one has to be intrinsically motivated and self-disciplined. MOOCs are not for those who learn only when forced to come to class, guided by time slots and schedules and pressured by grades, or for those who require extrinsic motivation in the form of a diploma.

Second, as MOOCs cannot be used to earn an accredited diploma, they are only interesting to those who seek to learn for the sake of knowledge itself, rather than for purposes of accreditation, for example, with the aim of eventually being hired.

Note, however, that there are numerous types of people who fall into the former group—take young entrepreneurs, for example, who can use MOOCs in order to acquire, free-of-charge, the competencies needed for opening their own businesses, thereby avoiding the need to pay ever-rising university fees. MOOCs might also play a role in executive education—indeed, most MOOC participants already have jobs. However, executives also work long hours and thus might quickly be tempted to abandon the online adventure.

Last but not least, participation in MOOCs requires infrastructure, ie, a computer and an internet connection with sufficiently high performance. Therefore—at least for the moment—MOOCs might not be suitable for providing education to the most rural zones of developing countries. Rather, MOOCs are more useful in areas in which technological infrastructure exists but building infrastructure is lacking.

In India, for example, the pace of building physical universities lags behind the rapid rate at which the student population is increasing, and in this case MOOCs can serve as a good temporary fill-in.

This explains why MOOCs have not met expectations so far. Successful MOOC users tend to be older than the classical student (25/30 years), are likely to already have at least one first diploma (80%), and are likely to be male (70%).

Despite the fundamental challenges outlined above, levels of initial registration to MOOCs are very impressive. However, the dropout rates are similarly high. To reduce the dropout rate, future MOOCs will need to overcome certain deficits.

First, MOOCs will need to be more engaging. This might entail integrating interactivity, including, for example, offering live chats with the professor or live video tutorials with teaching assistants, establishing dedicated Facebook groups, or creating virtual study groups.

Enabling users to observe other co-participants during a MOOC might increase their involvement, by allowing them to experience being part of a larger group and potentially reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation. In addition, one could introduce a certain selection process by asking for a small enrollment fee, which might limit MOOC abandonment rates.

Second, future MOOCs will need to open up job opportunities. The education platform, Coursera, for example, has begun to explore this avenue, initiating a career service in which companies and the most talented MOOC participants are introduced to one another for potential job interviews. However, while MOOC providers may facilitate the organisation of interviews, their participants will need to prove themselves to be as qualified as job-seekers who attended traditional classes.

Closely linked is a third issue to be solved: ensuring that the person getting a certificate and/or diploma is the same person who finished the course work with successful exam results. One possibility is to observe and record test-takers via webcam with or without their knowledge. This is similar to the case of call-centre employees whose conversations with clients are sometimes supervised. In addition, technology enables typing styles during previous exercises to be compared with typing styles during exams, with a mismatch being a signal for potential fraud.

Finally, one might simply ask participants to physically come in to test-centres. Udacity and edX have already announced their intention to create a partnership with PearsonVUE, a company owning around 4,000 test centres in 170 different countries worldwide.

The author is dean for academic affairs, ESCP Europe