The following post was contributed by Informed team members Jennie Findlay and Ian Clark.
There has been much coverage of the emergence of MOOCs (Multiple Open Online Courses) in recent months, sparking multiple discussions about their usefulness as a new learning experience for a wide variety of users. Their popularity has continued to rise since the first MOOC was launched to the public in 2007, so much so that even high street retailers such as Marks & Spencer have joined in, using the MOOC platform in conjunction with an academic partner in order to deliver a course on “commercial innovation” (a growing trend as MOOC providers begin to focus on providing job-related training). Some MOOC providers are also now beginning to focus on providing “nanodegrees”, designed to focus on training individuals to get very specific jobs. Within a few short years, online searches for learning providers with a physical location have been outstripped by those for online courses.
Of course MOOCs can be excellent learning tools, but as with any other method of delivering information and education, they also have their limitations. Most (free) MOOCs have excellent signup rates, but also an incredibly small course completion rate (averaging only 4% in one study).Those people who are successfully participating in MOOCs are also those people who are most likely to already have an advanced level of education. But are current MOOC offerings just an academic toy for those who are already well educated, and are they bypassing those who are actually most in need of access to expert training and life-enhancing skills? What’s stopping those who could most benefit from gaining skills and education via a MOOC from embracing the opportunity of self education?
Access barriers to MOOC use
There are multiple reasons why those who would most benefit from being able to access the university level training provided by MOOCs are unable to do so.
Access to a reliable internet connection
Access to an internet connection is an essential requirement for involvement in a MOOC, which are, by definition, delivered entirely online. But for many of those people who would most benefit from such a course, those with lower skill and education levels for example, securing access to a reliable internet connection, at an appropriate time, can present a significant barrier to engagement. According to the Office for National Statistics’ Internet Access statistical bulletin, 16% of households in the UK do not have an internet connection. Of those households without internet access, 12% say they do not have access because the equipment is too expensive and 11% say the access costs are too high. Furthermore, in households where the income is below £12,500, only 58% use the internet (lower than middle income households in 2005). It is clear, therefore, that for lower income households, MOOCs do little to broaden access to education and break down existing barriers.
Ownership of a computer/laptop with which to undertake a MOOC
A core requirement of an interactive course is that you have access to the equipment which will enable you to interact with fellow students and your tutor. However, the cost of owning a computer to enable you to undertake the course can be prohibitive for many, which means that their only option to access the course is via their local public library, and the computers available there.
Accessibility of public libraries
To use a public computer for a course of study requires that there be reliable access to that computer for the user. With reduced opening hours in many public libraries, not to mention library closures, being able to find a library open during the times when a MOOC student can visit presents a further significant barrier.
Availability of public computers
Undertaking a course of study, particularly while also working or undertaking other full time duties, requires the ability to set aside specific times for studying which fit around the student’s schedule. A lack of reliable availability of a computer will have an impact on this essential requirement to plan times of study. Many public libraries have restrictions on the availability of their computers, including limiting user sessions to one or two hours at a time, restricting the daily amount of hours a user can have on a computer and, in some cases, charging users for access to the internet. This can make it impossible for MOOC students who rely on access to these computers to schedule their studying time properly.
Reliability and speed of library networks
If a user has managed to both to access a public library and secure a public computer, they may still encounter difficulties engaging with a MOOC. Ageing technology and limited bandwidth availability on library networks means that those that rely on publicly accessible computers may experience greater difficulties than those who do not.
Course online interaction requirements
Many MOOCs encourage or require scheduled interaction sessions with either other participants, or the tutor. These are often in Google Hangouts, or MOOC-based chat rooms. This requirement to be able to be online, and access certain tools, can be difficult to comply with, particularly if the student has problems guaranteeing their ability to be online at a specific time. Many of the internationally based MOOC providers schedule these events in the evenings or weekends, which are particularly difficult times for some students (eg those with families) to get online.
Amount of time needed to commit to completion
There is a need to dedicate substantial time to many of the courses available online. Most Coursera courses, for example, have an estimated workload of 5-15hrs per week. Regardless of the course’s flexibility in terms of deadlines, for some the amount of time required to complete the course is too much. For those on low incomes, the combination of balancing requirements of family and personal development means that the latter will always lose out to the former. In addition, missing one class of 3 hours in one week due to other responsibilities will mean that 6 hours are needed the following week in order to catch up. This becomes an increasingly difficult task if internet and computer access are not guaranteed.
Cost of undertaking some of the commercial MOOCs
The most useful MOOCs are those which provide accredited training, and which will therefore be accepted and respected by potential employers. Although many MOOCs are currently being run free of charge to participants, it does not mean that they will be provided in this way in perpetuity. Currently, the substantial costs of creating and hosting MOOCs are being absorbed by the providers or course creators, but it is unclear to what extent this is sustainable in the long term. Most MOOC providing bodies are commercial entities, and inevitably they will eventually want to create a return on their investment.
Increasing introduction of costs to use public library networks (first hour free or sliding scale of charges for use of equipment)
As mentioned above, certain libraries have begun introducing charges for the use of their computers, usually after an initial free session time. Manchester City Libraries allow free use of library computers for an hour, and after that hour, users are charged a fee of £1.50 per hour. Having to pay for the use of a public computer can be a significant barrier for lower income MOOC students. And this is before we consider the cost of printing out documents, which comes at a price in public libraries. Many MOOC students will need to print out a substantial volume of the course materials in order to consult them when offline, this could significantly increase the financial burden.
The MOOC effect…
Beyond costs and barriers, MOOCs do not seem to be the giant step forward for the open, broad-based education revolution its advocates claim. For example, 70% of those who embark on such a course already have a degree, they are not attracting a huge swathe of people beyond the usual groups who engage with higher education. Even then, it’s questionable whether MOOCs are working for the majority with completion rates usually below 10%.
There are also concerns about the quality of the education provided via MOOCs. As one leading digital innovator in academia, Professor Dan Cohen (who led the development of Zotero) argues:
“We’re trying to do much more than reproducing lectures and quizzes online; we are trying to use the medium to enable new kinds of interpretation and scholarly interaction. So MOOCs seem like a huge step backward.”
Cohen has also claimed that he and other innovators are concerned about what he calls the “lowest-common denominator/old-style learning by repetition aspect to them”. Cohen argues, essentially, that MOOCs take a rather old-fashioned approach to education and that instead of promoting MOOCs as an alternative we should develop digital projects that help students to explore and encourage them to build their own digital projects.
There is also the danger, of course, of a narrowing down of course providers. As is inevitable, providers will merge, take-over competitors or disappear (particularly as some struggle to generate a return on their investment). In such an environment, there is a very real danger of the range of providers declining and the quality of the courses suffering as a result. A move towards one leading player in the market could create serious problems from an educational perspective, particularly if that player has other commercial interests and sees MOOCs as a way to cross-promote. Equally, there is a danger of developing very narrow skills that will either benefit the provider itself or its partners, rather than a well-rounded education that encourages the kind of critical thinking skills that are not considered desirable or profitable within the workplace.
Cohen also points out that most of the successful MOOCs have been maths/computer based and primarily vocational. It may well be that MOOCs are a beneficial education tool, but it may not be across all subjects. Some may lend themselves to the learning styles that MOOCs demand whilst others may be less so. After all, everyone learns in a different way. Some prefer face-to-face tuition, some prefer textual learning, some are happy with videos. For those who perform best when receiving face-to-face interaction (whether that be with peers or teachers), MOOCs will not be a suitable alternative to traditional methods of learning. A mixed approach for such students, however, may be more suitable. San Jose State University, for example, found that a combination of online lectures and face-to-face class time significantly improved the pass rate for engineers.
MOOCs have certainly got a lot of people talking excitedly about their potential to revolutionise education – again, something to support this might be helpful. However, it is not clear yet whether they offer any significant advantages over formal routes of education or that they are quite the revolution that its advocates suggest. There are still a number of barriers that need to be overcome before many can embark on a MOOC, in this respect they differ little from the more traditional method of learning. Higher education has long seen to be the preserve of the few, particularly the elite institutions. There’s little to suggest that MOOCs are any different in this regard.
Indeed, it appears that they erect the same barriers as their traditional counterpart. Cost is a big factor in preventing engagement, as is time. Neither are in abundance for those at the bottom of the economic scale. For those with limited resources (both financial and time), MOOCs may appear as distant as a top university. They are not, as yet at least, proving to be the big game-changer for further education that the advocates may have suggested.
Not only are MOOCs failing to open the doors of education to all, but they are also failing to be revolutionary in how they teach. Rather than taking full advantage of the technology that such a programme should allow, they take a rather conservative approach. As Cohen points out, many universities are already providing more sophisticated methods for engaging students digitally. MOOCs, at present at least, seem to be somewhat behind the curve when it comes to engaging with students in new and innovative ways.
MOOCs certainly appear to be here to stay, but are they really the big step-forward that we have been led to believe? There are still barriers to their use as with more traditional routes of education. They are not accessible for those without the means to engage with them, either financially or in terms of the time they can commit. They seem to offer nothing new in terms of digital learning, in fact they seem some way behind traditional universities in terms of innovation. MOOCs are certainly an interesting development in terms of the delivery of education. It remains to be seen whether they herald a revolution in terms of opening up education and with respect to fully exploiting new technologies in the learning environment. In short, the jury is still out.