Riding the Tide of MOOCs

William Shakespeare noted a while back “there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune."

March 23, 2014

There are a number of reasons put forward as to why MOOCS will continue to grow apace, ranging from seeing MOOCs as a brand-building exercise to the suggestion that running a MOOC will improve the on-campus courses. Recently, Karl Ulrich, vice-dean of innovation at Wharton (University of Pennsylvania’s Business School) came up with two interesting statistics from some of their MOOCs. First the initial enrolment of one was more than 130,000 students. Second, more than 40% of people enrolling in another already held masters, professional or doctoral degrees. This, he says, gave him the feeling that a lot of the people who enroll in MOOCs are adults who want to know something specific.

The interpretation resonated with me personally. Some years ago I did a MOOC on Learning Analytics run from Athabasca by George Siemens because I wanted to know about that stuff, not because I needed the credits. It was a great course, gave me the information I wanted (plus a lot more), some skills and a lasting network of fellow moochers. Last year one of my friends enrolled in an Art Theory (Italian Renaissance) course at a leading university in the UK because she was intending to “do the grand tour of Italy” with her know-it-all teenage offspring and thought it would augment her travels. She was so impressed with the MOOC she is talking convincingly about pursuing further formal studies with that particular university. We refer to ourselves as “Minnies”, referencing Cab Calloway but also because they are mini-courses.

It was interesting to read the University of London’s International Programmes report on their MOOCs last year. They ran four trial ones that were designed to spread the mission and profile of the University; recruit by way of turning Moochers into fee-paying students and use MOOCs to trial innovative new ways of delivering courses.  Their data collection analysis echoed Ulrich’s suspicions: the average age was 34 (lower than Coursera’s average age of 37) indicating that the majority was indeed older (or there were a handful of very old students raising the average). Not only were they older they were also well educated: 70% of enrollees had a bachelor degree or higher, which kind of makes it unlikely that they would enroll in a certificated course.

On the other hand, more than 210,000 people registered for the four course, of whom 90,000 actually started one and less than 9,000 completed it to the point of qualifying for a Certificate of Completion. From an institutional point of view that’s pretty dismal – you wouldn’t want to base your business plan on those figures. On the other hand, they now have 9,000 mainly international students familiar with the University. And they were international: surprisingly nearly 25% of the intake came from the US, with each of Brazil, Russia, India and China at around 5%. American predominance may be because they are more used to MOOCs, which augers well for getting a foothold in the BRICs because they too will become familiar and confident with mooching. And according to the happy sheets – everyone loved it. Yes, they did. Of course they did. But I digress…

As to the third criterion, did running a MOOC make teaching more innovative elsewhere? Well, offering a quartet of MOOCs in itself at least shows a willingness to engage pedagogically with the dizzy world of international virtuality. (Yes, I know there is no such word.) I’m sure that the folks who got the program up and running will have learnt a lot and the next iteration will be better. And I am keen to read how the next round pans out.

It should be acknowledged that there remains a good deal of suspicion and controversy about MOOCs, and some of it is relevant and important to discuss openly and frankly. Issues that warrant research include mooching remaining free (currently there are far more opinions than verifiable data on either side of the argument); the difficulty of engaging with a screen rather than a person (there are people working on that but it’s a real problem for a virtual international student); and what do you do with theses and capstones, the courses that draw everything together. Oh, and for international students especially, academic integrity is apparently an issue, although not one limited to MOOCs.

But as William Shakespeare noted a while back “there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat. And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures”. Shallows and miseries don’t make great advertising copy for higher education institution promoting themselves internationally. Undoubtedly social media will continue to proliferate unsubstantiated and unmediated opinion about this and everything else but for my money MOOCS, after a period of tweaking, offer a way forward by providing access to new knowledge, which in turn may push the leading universities back into the public sphere as both knowledge creators and disseminators.  It’s about time.



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