Taking stock of the MOOCs landscape: past, present, future

I found myself thinking out loud about the evolution of the MOOC landscape so far. To get feedback and share my view on the past, present, and future of the landscape, I’ll share this.

In the beginning, MOOCs were focused on openness: make the content available and the people will come. And the people did come, in thousands and hundreds of thousands, but we quickly found that the experience in these MOOCs was not actually replacing the experience of the in-person class. No one would argue that taking a MOOC was actually equivalent to taking the comparable college course.

So, MOOCs evolved. Some of the directions in which they reinvented themselves were aimed more at differentiation: MOOCs became shorter, less directly analogous to comparable college classes, more varied in the range of topics covered, and more specific in the number of topics covered in any one MOOC. As an analogy, instead of a poetry MOOC, we’d have a series of MOOCs each focused on individual poets or movements in poetry. These changes were driven by market demand, even though they took MOOCs away from their original position as open-access college courses.

However, other MOOCs evolved in the opposite direction. In other places, MOOCs recognized the difference between traditional college classes and MOOCs, and they moved to rectify these differences. I, personally, would identify three key areas in which the early MOOCs differed from traditional classes: feedback, accreditation, and context. A major criticism of MOOCs has been the lack of interaction. It’s been suggested that MOOCs are fine for autodidacts, but the majority of learners need feedback to improve; the learning sciences supports this as well. Students also do not take college courses simply to learn; the valuable diploma or credential at the end of the journey is one, if not the, major motivating factor behind participation in traditional college. Students also rarely take classes in vacuums: each class builds on previous classes, and in turn becomes the foundation for future classes.

Initially, MOOCs missed these elements of traditional college courses. There was little feedback due to the difficulties in scaling personalized feedback. MOOCs were meaningless on resumes and in portfolios; anyone could claim to have completed any MOOC, and there was little knowledge as to what completing a particular MOOC actually meant. MOOCs were mostly one-off courses, absent the context of a broader unit.

In contrast to the differentiation mentioned previously, MOOCs have also evolved to address these initial weaknesses. This is clearly evident in three of the most prominent MOOC providers: Coursera, edX, and Udacity (note my prior disclaimer).

Coursera’s Verified Certificates and specializations address all three of these issues. A Verified Certificate carries with it an assertion that the work was, in fact, completed by the individual, mimicking the need for a form of accreditation. Specializations are series of courses developed to provide a broader view of a particular topic, injecting the context that is missing from one-off courses. Specializations culminate in a capstone project, where (I presume; I haven’t completed one yet) the student receives the feedback that is lacking in traditional MOOCs.

Udacity’s Nanodegree credentials are similar. A human coach interacts with the student, interviewing them live on the skills they have obtained, allowing the assertion that the individual receiving the credential really mastered the skills. Nanodegrees focus on jobs’ entire skillsets rather than individual skills, providing critical context. Throughout the program, students receive feedback from coaches, peers, and external code reviewers on their work, allowing for a true iterative feedback and refinement cycle that one would expect in a traditional classroom.

Of course, Coursera and Udacity differ in critical ways. Coursera maintains (in my opinion) openness as the guiding principle; Verified Certificates are kept relatively cheap ($50 per course at present, leading to ~$300 for a specialization depending on the number of courses). Although these changes inch toward the functions of traditional college courses, they remain distant: the identity verification is easy to fool, and the amount of feedback still pales in comparison to traditional courses. Udacity moves to more closely address those traditional college functions: identity is asserted through real-time face-to-face interaction with a coach rather than an automatic system, and feedback is available constantly from coaches, peers, and external reviewers (both of which connect to the higher cost of a Nanodegree credential than a Coursera specialization). However, the underlying nature of the moves is the same: both have moved to provide a form of accreditation (or at least identity verification), individualized feedback, and broader context.

These changes should not be overly surprising. MOOCs have followed a traditional Gartner hype cycle: the initial hype was overblown, but MOOCs are starting to find their place. I would argue we’re at the beginning of the slope of enlightenment with regard to MOOCs, well on our way to the plateau of productivity. Some might argue we’re further along; students are already getting jobs based on completion of these online programs, which can certainly be argued to be indicative of a productive industry.

All that begs the question: what’s next? What’s next for the MOOC landscape? For me, the elephant in the room goes back to accreditation. Academic honesty is a major problem for traditional education, and it is exacerbated in online education. When you can’t see your student, how do you guarantee the student is, indeed, responsible for the work? Coursera addresses this through pictures after each assessment and keyboard pattern matching, but these only guarantee that the student was at the computer when the work was submitted. It’s trivial to have a friend send you answers. Until this can be resolved, I do not foresee Coursera’s certificates having much value in the market. Udacity’s measures are effectively impossible to circumvent, but they present a challenge for scale: there is a linear relationship between the number of students and the amount of employee time necessary to verify them.

Accreditation is not as simple as identity verification, however. Even if I knew that a person I was interviewing had personally completed a particular Coursera course, I still would likely not put much stock in it. The majority of Coursera courses I’ve taken can be passed without learning anything simply by gaming the quizzes and assessments. Accreditation of these courses and programs needs to not only focus on identity verification, but also the strength of the material and the accompanying assessments. What can we actually assert that a student completing a given class has learned? Until that element of accreditation comes along, I do not foresee the simply identity verification approach as sufficient to make these credentials worthwhile. (Sidenote: I do not mean the above as a general critique of Coursera; as far as learning is concerned, I appreciate that iterative improvement on assessments is permitted, and it connects strongly to Coursera’s emphasis on openness and accessibility.)

In the absence of accreditation, validity can be built in other ways. Graduates from the Nanodegree program at Udacity, for example, do not need to rely solely on the value of the program name because they also leave with a portfolio of projects demonstrating their knowledge. Some Coursera specializations mimic this as well, and it is possible that reputations may build up organically over time based on the strength of past program graduates. However, I feel there is a more efficient possibility for MOOCs and other online classes to go through a true accreditation process to verify the value and reliability of a given course. With such a process, demand for these credentials would rise as their value on a resume or application would rise as well. This would also open up demand for MOOCs to much broader populations: schools and universities could supplement their course catalogs with accredited MOOCs, entire degree programs could be constructed based on MOOCs from numerous different universities, and current classes could benefit from global audiences working in tandem with traditional students. In my opinion, accreditation is the chasm standing between the present state of MOOCs and the promise of MOOCs.

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2 thoughts on “Taking stock of the MOOCs landscape: past, present, future”

  1. I find it interesting that so many people find MOOCs illegitimate because of their delivery and scope. I find that they are not much different than an online for-credit course taken at a university, and I personally view them like a huge lecture hall class at a big university–both in size and lack of direct contact.

    As far as “gaming” the system, that can be done pretty much anywhere. I’ve yet to sit in a class where the instructor verifies the identity of each student (even when they have the means to.) There are so many students that show up for the first day of class and exams only. Although one has to properly identify to enroll in university/college, no one is verifying the identities of anyone taking an online course. My ex-husband did several online courses for his friend and pretty much earned her Bachelor’s for her.

    And to be honest, every school has it’s crap courses, be it poor instructors or just fillers to fulfill financial aid obligations, such as a full-time schedule to get more benefits. With the state of the economy the past few years, there has been plenty of speculation about the usefulness of a traditional 4-year degree, especially with respect to costs.

    Ultimately, value is in the eye of the beholder.

  2. My concerns with moocs stem from the suittinabilsay aspect. While MIT’s OCW program brought in great numbers it fell short in terms of it’s access limitations. By that I mean that in the MIT model you were not privy to all content and resources but rather an overview version. I believe that in that model it was an instructor driven prospect where the professor in question doled out what was available at his or her discretion. On the question of moocs, where does that leave teachers who have spent years developing their courses and strategies? Are they being payed extra by their parent institutions for this (it is their course design)? Where is that money coming from? In fact, where is any of this money that will be required to make this happen over the long haul coming from? What promises were made to investors? Advertising revenue? This is all opaque at the moment and the danger lies in the touting of societal goodwill for the generation of capital regardless of how it comes about.I do believe this to be a genuinely philanthropic innovation but at the end of the day everything costs something and I have a hard time believing that established HE will be able to undercut themselves for long.

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