Are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) the Future of Education and Training?

Prof. Dirk Ifenthaler
Prof. Dirk Ifenthaler

Internationally recognised expert in instructional design and learning technologies, Prof. Dirk Ifenthaler of Mannheim University, is interviewed by the Council on Business & Society.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) lay claim to be the latest revolution in learning, shaping not only how we learn but creating a movement of unparalleled transformation in how schools, universities, business schools and training providers shape their organisations, budgets, resources and curricula.

Professor Dirk Ifenthaler, this month’s host contributor for the Council on Business & Society, moves away from the widespread MOOC marketing buzz to this new learning strategy to provide one of the clearest, most balanced texts to come out of the international education community: a “must read” for any organisation or learning professional undergoing or planning to undertake this key learning revolution of our times.

What exactly are MOOCs?

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are online courses with free and open registration, allowing unlimited participation via Internet. Its development contains the guiding idea of an access to education without demographic, geographical, economic, and time constraints. MOOCs have arisen in the context of emerging networking technologies that have enabled and, as a result, influence new learning formats and opportunities in education. Based on their different pedagogies two major categories of MOOCs are distinguished: cMOOCs and xMOOCS. The connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) focus on providing interactive learning environments, encouraging discussions, social network and blog engagement, peer assessment, and autonomy of educational objectives. The second type, extended MOOCs (xMOOCs), concentrate more on a traditional cognitive-behaviourist approach of content delivery and knowledge transfer through lecture videos, integrated quizzes and short tests.

What are the motivations for a university or training organisation for opting for a MOOC?

Universities and institutions aim to build and maintain their brand, improve educational outcomes, and innovate teaching and learning. MOOCs are a growing element in almost every strategic decision-making in higher education. The advantage of reaching large numbers of learners worldwide is especially an attractive marketing instrument for universities and institutions. Class sizes usually range from fewer than hundred to one hundred thousand students enrolling in the weekly courses provided by large universities via platforms such as Coursera, edX, Udacity, or KhanAcademy (a list of links to selected MOOC providers can be found below). Registered students get (free) access to the coherent learning sequences with learning materials, forums, and formative assessment. Universities use MOOCs as a test bed for new modes of instructional and curriculum design, competence assessment, and the establishment of learning platforms, as well as learning analytics frameworks. MOOCs also function as a stress test for administrative systems being implemented or further enhanced. In addition, universities use the free online courses as a taster to promote fee-paying courses and study programmes as well as offer students a pathway to earning academic credits. Hence, students can be formally assessed (in most cases for a fee) and can earn partial credits for acceptance into the universities’ certificate or programme.

What are the best practices when developing MOOCs?

I have been involved in designing, developing, and researching digital learning environments since the late 1990s. From an instructional design perspective, the design of a MOOC should include, but not be limited to, the following principles:

  1. Personalised and adaptive learning: Regarded as tailored education to learners’ current situation, characteristics, and needs in order to help them to achieve the best possible learning progress and outcomes.
  2. Authentic and process-oriented assessments: Assessments embedded in real-world contexts, such as the integration of authentic tasks and competence-based assessments, are critical elements for designing highly engaging MOOCs.
  3. Active learning: Allowing the learners to engage in learning and teaching activities, to take responsibility for their own learning, and to establish relevant competences by analysing, synthesizing, and evaluating.
  4. Intelligent and timely feedback: Enabling student success through feedback which should recognise the motivating factors associated with specific learning activities. In addition, it should be targeted to the particular needs of the learner.
  5. Collaborative or social learning: Recognised as pivotal to engaging students, by offering students a sense of belonging to and real connection with a study group.
  6. High production values: Initial empirical research on MOOCs shows that shorter videos (i.e., less than six minutes) are much more engaging. Additionally, tablet drawings and interactive elements in videos increase motivation. However, lecture recordings from classrooms do not qualify for learning materials in MOOCs because face-to-face lectures have a different instructional focus and pedagogical intention.

Being successful in MOOCs requires certain competences for all involved stakeholders such as administrators, lecturers, instructional designers, and web developers. A key issue is the focus on learning, hence, educators should be versed in instructional design, course and curriculum development, as well as student monitoring to assure pedagogical quality and a positive learning experience. Therefore, professional development of all involved stakeholders is a prerequisite for successful MOOCs.

What are the various models of financing the investment in developing a MOOC and is there a real ROI?

Learning innovation and ROI
Learning innovation and ROI

First, I would like to highlight a few financial facts. The cost of designing, developing, and maintaining a single MOOC course may range from €10,000 to €200,000. Initial investment of MOOC platforms are estimated as follows: Coursera, €20 Million; edX, €50 Million; Udacity, €19 Million. For example, the cost of a first MOOC at Syracuse University, NY, USA was approximately €25,000 including all labour costs involved and other expenditure such as in-house video recording, learning materials, and platform integration. Successful students were offered a 20% scholarship (worth approximately €3,000) toward a university certificate. Ninety students completed the MOOC and eight enrolled in the study programme. Subsequently, it is estimated that the university will reap €100,000 total if all finish the study programme.

Other benefits which are not measured as monetary ROI include more successful students in particular study programmes, social engagement of the university beyond its regional presence, and enhancing the reputation of the university. Clearly, MOOCs are a marketing strategy with international impact that in many cases call for an investment of less than €20,000 per year. MOOCs are also recognised as a talent pool for businesses and universities. Research on ROI of MOOCs identified additional beneficiary opportunities: headhunting, certificate selling, textbook sales, data sales, course credit fees, or licencing fees. However, a formal business model has not yet been adopted and empirically tested for MOOCs.

What are the pros and cons, as well as challenges, for organisations adopting MOOCs?

Currently, new Internet applications are introduced at an increasing rate and their use for learning and instruction quickly follows the general introduction to the web community. Advantages for learning and instruction via the Internet include the freedom of learning anywhere and anytime and the flexibility of creating individualized learning environments for self-paced learning as well as individual learning preferences. Other advantages include the possibility for fostering higher interaction between students and facilitators, and the availability of help and feedback from peer learners and facilitators as well as the accessibility of nearly endless open educational resources. Let’s take a look at the disadvantages of learning and instruction via the Internet. These include the feeling of isolation if no or only minor social interaction is integrated in the online curriculum, technical challenges such as slow Internet connection or older computers and applications, lack of authenticity through simulated virtual classrooms and laboratories, as well as low study motivation and bad study habits.

Although the advantages of current and future Web generations for learning and instruction are all beyond question, the pedagogically significant question as to how learning and instruction can be supported is effectively sometimes left out of the picture. The possibility of semantic intelligent Internet applications (also referred to as Web 3.0) using big data, educational data mining, and learning analytics will assist lecturers by creating reusable learning objects and providing immediate feedback to learners at key stages of the learning process. Although, it is expected that through these advances the role of the teacher is changing, the future digital learning environments will not make the educator redundant.

Selected References

Ifenthaler, D. (2010). Learning and instruction in the digital age. In J. M. Spector, D. Ifenthaler, P. Isaías, Kinshuk & D. G. Sampson (Eds.), Learning and instruction in the digital age: Making a difference through cognitive approaches, technology-facilitated collaboration and assessment, and personalized communications (pp. 3–10). New York: Springer.

Ifenthaler, D., Bellin-Mularski, N., & Mah, D.-K. (2015). Internet: Its impact and its potential for learning and instruction. In J. M. Spector (Ed.), Encyclopedia of educational technology (Vol. 1, pp. 416–422). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Spector, J. M., Merrill, M. D., Elen, J., & Bishop, M. J. (Eds.). (2014). Handbook of research on educational communications and technology. New York: Springer.

White, B., King, I., & Tsang, P. (Eds.). (2011). Social media tools and platforms in learning environments. Berlin: Springer.

Selected MOOC Providers

Prof. Dirk Ifenthaler is currently Professor for Instructional Design and Technology at the University of Mannheim, Germany, as well as holding adjunct and research posts internationally.

The Council on Business & Society Global Alliance is an ongoing international dialogue between six of the world’s leading business schools and an organiser of Forums focusing on issues at the crossroads of business and society – The Council Community helps bring together business leaders, academics, students and journalists from around the world. #CouncilonBusinessandSociety

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